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The (Imperfect) Value of the Debates

Mitt Romney and Barack Obama on stage at the first presidential debate. October 4, 2012.

Mitt Romney and Barack Obama on stage at the first presidential debate. October 4, 2012. Photo courtesy of Voice of America, PD.

On Sunday, October 14, a special edition of ABC’s This Week, produced with the Miller Center, focused on the question, "Do presidential debates change elections?" Today’s guest post provides a scholarly response to the question.        

The September 26, 1960, edition of the Washington Post did not even mention that night’s scheduled debate between presidential candidates John F. Kennedy, the Democratic senator from Massachusetts, and Vice President Richard Nixon, the Republican nominee.  The three broadcast networks’ evening news programs barely mentioned the event.

            Surprise: the audience for the first Kennedy-Nixon debate—the first debate in history between two candidates for president—was the largest for a political event in human history up to that time.  More than 60 million saw it on television and millions more heard it on the radio.  About 100 million saw or heard at least one of the four debates.

            And then . . . nothing.  No debates when President Lyndon B. Johnson ran against Arizona senator Barry Goldwater in 1964.  None when Nixon faced Vice President Hubert H. Humphrey and an independent candidate, Gov. George Wallace of Alabama, in 1968.  Or when Nixon ran for reelection against Sen. George McGovern of South Dakota in 1972.

            Only in 1976 did the stars align once again and debates occur.  The main reason: for the first time since 1960, both candidates—President Gerald Ford, who was trailing in the polls, and Gov. Jimmy Carter, who like all challengers wanted a stage on which he could face the incumbent as an equal—saw an advantage in debating.  Nineteen seventy-six also brought an innovation: the debate between Ford’s running mate, Sen. Robert Dole of Kansas, and Carter’s vice presidential nominee, Minnesota senator Walter Mondale.  Not a bad idea, considering that fourteen vice presidents—nearly one third of them—have gone on to become president.

            Every election after 1976 has seen at least one debate.  Voters came to expect and then demand them.  The political price of not participating was higher than even a popular reelection-seeking president like Ronald Reagan in 1984 was willing to pay.  But until recently the number, timing, location, format, and sponsorship of the debates was always up for grabs.

            That’s no longer true, and we can thank the Commission on Presidential Debates for that.  The commission was founded in 1987 in an effort to take the debates away from the candidates’ handlers and place them in bipartisan hands.  It took a while for the commission to accomplish that goal, but it has done so thoroughly.  In every twenty-first century presidential election, the Commission announced when and where the debates would occur, their format and subject, and who would moderate them—and the candidates showed up.  So institutionalized have debates become that neither President Barack Obama nor Gov. Mitt Romney gave a moment’s thought to the possibility of not participating as scheduled on October 3, October 16, and October 22; nor did Vice President Joseph Biden or Rep. Paul Ryan consider not being there on October 11.

            Do the debates affect the outcome of presidential elections?  Scholars differ so much on that question that no definite answer is possible.  Clearly Romney gained substantial ground in this year’s first debate, but nothing guarantees that he won’t lose it back between now and election day.

The more important question is: do the debates affect the character of the campaign?  The answer is yes, for better (mostly) and for worse.

Here is what’s good and bad about debates—the bad first.

One fair criticism of the debates is that they place too great a value on the candidates’ ability to react on the spur of the moment, in isolation from their advisers.  This is not something presidents are often called on to do.  Another is that the time constraints on each debater place a premium on snappy sound bites, thereby undervaluing complex, sustained thought.  George Washington (too ponderous), Thomas Jefferson (too reticent), and Abraham Lincoln (too ugly, with a reedy voice to boot) are among the presidents who would not have fared well in televised debates.  Finally, the Commission has set the bar too high—15 percent support in the polls—for third-party candidates to participate.  Why not lower that to 5 percent for at least one of the three presidential debates? 

These are serious negatives but the good about the debates far outweighs the bad. 

First, the debates reveal much about the candidates.  Despite all their rehearsing, glimmers of truth spontaneously shine through.  Nixon really was uneasy in his own skin in 1960.  Gov. Michael Dukakis, the Democratic nominee in 1988, actually did lack feeling.  Independent candidate Ross Perot truly was about one snappy aphorism deep in 1992—after that, he was reduced to repeating himself.  And Al Gore was as uncertain of who he is as his three personae in the three debates with George W. Bush in 2000 suggested.

Second, unlike the negative ads that comprise most of what the voters see and hear of the candidates, in the debates they have to make their charges face to face and defend them when their opponent responds.

Third, as good as face to face is, side by side is even better.  The debates are the only setting in which the candidates address the issues before the same audience at the same time.  They provide a way for voters to weigh one argument against another. 

Fourth, debates force voters who have made up their minds to at least listen to the other side.  In an era when increasing numbers of us get all or most of our information from left-leaning sources like MSNBC and the HuffingtonPost or right-leaning sources like Fox News and Rush Limbaugh, it is all too easy to think not only that we are correct in our political beliefs, but that the other side has no point at all.  Debates draw us out of our ideological silos.

Finally, for all their imperfections, the ultimate question about the value of the debates is: compared to what?  The ads?  The sound bites? The tweets?  In assessing debates, we should not let the perfect be the enemy of the good.  Debates aren’t perfect, just good—and that’s good enough.

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