Tuesday, September 23, 2008

On the Subject of the Debates

An article appeared yesterday on one of the larger political news aggregator sites, suggesting that Presidential debates have little meaningful impact, It's a compelling article, written and edited by smart people with lots of supporting detail and an air of confidence in its conclusions; all-in-all, an entertaining read. There's only one small problem: it's also unambiguously wrong.

To begin with, there aren't really enough data points from which to draw such a conclusion--there have only been, if you can believe this, twenty-four modern, televised debates among candidates for President, spanning a paltry nine elections (from 1960 to the present, excluding 1964 and 1968). In many of these elections there was little chance that the debates could make much difference, precisely because the matter was all but decided in advance. It's something we tend to have forgotten over the past two or three intensely polarized elections, but it's still true in larger context: most Presidential contests aren't very competitive. Walter Mondale was never going to be President, and neither was Bob Dole, and an unusually lop-sided performance in a debate wasn't going to change that for either one of them. Indeed it didn't.

Moreover, a close election unto itself isn't necessarily one in which big shifts are automatically easier to accomplish. John Kerry obliterated George Bush Jr. in the first 2004 Presidential debate, and got very little bump from it--but not because the debates aren't at least potentially powerful tools for shaping public opinion; the reason it didn't happen in that race is because the population had already locked-in to its choice of one candidate or the other. As close as the race was (indeed there is more than a smattering of evidence that we anointed the wrong winner), opinions were far too solidified to be changed in large numbers over anything that happened the last weekend in September.

What it takes for a Presidential debate to move the popular opinion is a situation in which the public really doesn't want one of the two candidates to win, but can't quite bring itself to feel comfortable with the other. In the modern era we've had three such elections: in 1960 the public didn't want Nixon but was afraid to vote for Kennedy; in 1980 the public didn't want Carter but was afraid to vote for Reagan; and in 2000 the public didn't want Gore but was afraid to vote for Bush.

If you buy this argument, then you will note almost immediately that these three elections have three things in common: first, they were all races in which the guy the public "feared" also had the inside-track to closing the deal. Second, they were all races in which that guy convinced the public that he could handle the job by over-performing in the Presidential debates, and ultimately won. And third, they all bear at least some structural verisimilitude to the situation we have right now.

In 1960, the general public was fatigued by the suddenly scandal-tainted Eisenhower Administration and predicted (presciently, as it turned out), that integrity in the White House was not likely to be improved under Eisenhower's bombastic and already tarnished Vice President. But still the same, many people were simply terrified of the idea of a young, relatively inexperienced, second-term Senator with a decidedly hush-hush problem of "other-ness" (in his case, for his time, being a Catholic was every bit as scary as Obama's supposed other-ness is to many people, now). It fell to Kennedy to convince the general public that he wouldn't be green, reckless, or beholden to the Pope--and he did so, famously and convincingly, in the first-ever televised Presidential debate. In the end his other-ness resulted in a race closer than it should have been, but Nixon objections notwithstanding, he won.

In 1980, the general public was more than fed-up with Jimmy Carter, but his polarizing and apparently war-ready opponent had been effectively portrayed in Carter's ads as a celebrity who wasn't ready for the job. Carter, a retired Navyman, argued that these times of international turmoil and threats-from-without should trump concerns over economic malaise (and any finger-pointing that might otherwise follow therefrom), and that people should return his party to office on the exclusive grounds of fear of the unknown movie star. Stop me when any of that starts to sound familiar, won't you.

We all know what happened next: In a performance that was at once warm, endearing, and yet far more masculine than the President's, Reagan secured a landslide win in what had been up to that time a fairly close-run contest--uttering his famous "there you go again," line as his power-play of empathy for the fatigue that Americans had come to feel about the tired, one-trick campaigning tactics of the incumbent, as much as for any policy related to taxes and spending. "Reagan won that first debate and the larger election," a Presidential historian once said in a PBS interview, "just by not being crazy." The incumbent party, having over-played its hand on the "not-ready" argument, had no second-act and spent much of the final five weeks of the race in a state of near-total confusion and disarray.

Fast-forward to 2000, when even Mr. Bush's most fervent supporters knew (if only privately) that he was not going to win any Nobel Prizes for Chemistry any time soon, but who shared with the larger public an overwhelming sense of exhaustion with the Clinton Administration's divisive tactics for weathering pointless scandals in the White House. The anointed Clinton-successor, Al Gore, didn't even campaign with his boss and did not want to be directly associated with him during his campaign. Indeed at the 2000 Florida Democratic Party convention, when I personally tried to start the chant, "Four More With Gore!", which I thought was pretty snappy and a darned-good argument under the circumstances, I was quickly hushed-up by a campaign operative who hastily explained in whispered tones that the Vice President didn't want to be seen as "four more" of anything. And I believe it was it at that moment that I resigned myself to his ultimate defeat in the election.

Bush, for his part, needed only to prove that he could speak in complete sentences and wasn't quite as moronic as he'd been made out to be in Democratic circles--and the best platform on which to do this was the first Presidential debate. Whether the public would have thought he pulled it off or not, absent Mr. Gore's bizarre and hiss-laden performance that night, is an unanswerable question; but the larger point stands: Bush won that debate and "won" the larger election on the basis of not being quite so over-matched by the supposedly more statesman-like opponent against whom he was running.

If Mr. Obama is any student of history at all, he would be well-advised to ignore the articles that suggest he can do little to improve on his already solid lead this Friday. The race feels to all but the most ardent McCain supporters as if it is Mr. Obama's to lose, but he still faces the uphill battle of winning-over an unusually large swathe of undecided voters--precisely because his race and his supposed inexperience make him such a theoretically "scary" alternative to the man almost nobody still wants to win the job.

If Obama is relaxed, comfortable, plays within his game and doesn't give-in to the temptation to reach back for a knockout punch--if he "passes the living room test," as the Republicans wondered aloud about Kerry in 2004--then we will all see it in a second, perhaps even larger bump in the post-Lehman structural advantage he's been enjoying in this race.

I can't wait.

Dave O'Gorman
("The Key Grip")
Gainesville, Florida


Anonymous said...

I think you are quite right in every respect, but I think that Obama has already passed a couple of those "living room" tests. A few days ago there was a poll [I'm not making this up] that said people would rather watch football with Obama. Then there is the latest ad which shows a very relaxed Obama, just laying it out very calmly. I hope that is the persona that he portrays on Friday night. However, that being said, someone stole and destroyed all our 3 yard signs last night--so Nazism is alive and well here.

Dave O'Gorman said...

You might be interested to know that campaigns in general -- and the Obama campaign in particular -- positively *hate* yard signs. They make an enormous amount of work for field-office workers who could be organizing walk lists and phone banks instead, and when the signs get stolen they have to deal with replacement.

I'm not saying you shouldn't have yard signs, or that you shouldn't be concerned when they get stolen -- but I might suggest that you bypass your local offices for replacements, and get them directly from the campaign (in return for a donation, of course).

Anonymous said...

All you "blogees" out there might be able to answer the question of why is Obama making a new ad every few minutes it seems. Last night during the news on TV, we saw no less than 3 separate and distinct ads for him--and none for McCain (hehehe). Isn't that a waste of money?

Dave O'Gorman said...

The Obama campaign has the luxury of trying a wide assortment of messages to see which ones work the best -- then running the ones that do in wider rotation. They can do this because they can afford to do this.

Also, it's worth remembering that the electoral attention span is down sharply from previous cycles, owing to all the electronic information sources (like this one) that rapidly update with new topics of discussion. An ad campaign that hammers a two week-old ad in the face of breathlessly changing coverage runs the risk of looking stale and un-responsive.

All of this being said (see today's post), it's incumbent upon every loyal reader of this column to use the "contact us" link on his or her favorite media outlet's web page to demand that the Rick Davis story go straight to the front page.