September 26, 2016

AP photos

It’s high noon in the general election and that means debates.  This is the make or break moment when a gaffe can rob candidates of their last best hope for victory.

Well, not quite.  

The status we give to debates in the electoral process doesn’t exactly live up to the evidence.  Turns out the effects of the debates are largely a product of our own myth making. This doesn’t mean they aren’t important and, like so many others, I’ll be paying close attention to each debate, tonight from inside the debate hall.

John Sides’ had an excellent piece in the Washington Monthly four years ago on the impact of presidential debates.  He noted that “The small or nonexistent movement in voters’ preferences is evident when comparing the polls before and after each debate or during the debate season as a whole. Political lore often glosses over or even ignores the polling data.”

So knowing the trajectory of a race pre debate can tell us a good deal about the trajectory post-debate.  The actual debate itself doesn’t seem to matter all that much.

Sides offered a nice and succinct list of those moments that in the mirror looked like they had a huge impact on the outcome of a race.  But the reality at the time is quite different. Debates are rarely game changers.  That doesn’t mean they cannot have an impact, particularly in a close race.  But even then the impact may be slight. Changes in polling numbers are the product of many factors.

I suspect that those moments we recall vividly from years past are mental cues that provide reminders of the ultimate outcome.  Ford’s misstatement about Soviet domination in 1976 or Reagan’s “There you go again” moment in 1980 or Al Gore’s heavy sighs in 2000 provide us with a way of remembering complex electoral cycles. But rarely are such moments determinative.

Suggestions otherwise are simplistic. Ronald Reagan didn’t win 49 states because of a witty one liner in 1984. George H. W. Bush didn’t lose in 1992 because he looked at his watch. Barack Obama didn’t win a second term because he overcame one poor debate performance with a second solid one. 

Massachusetts has a rich history of debates befitting our state’s preoccupation with politics.  The Dukakis-King debates in 1978 and 1982 were heated affairs that offered an excellent glimpse into the divisions, often personal, that existed within the state’s Democratic party.  But those were pre primary debates that appeal to a thinner slice of the electorate. 

Memories have often been made during general election debates in the Commonwealth–Scott Brown noting that the Senate seat belonged to the citizens was only the most recent– but it’s difficult to suggest that any one debate performance fundamentally changed the contours of a race.

Despite all of that, we’ll watch, tweet, & analyze.  Elections offer citizens choices and a bit of political theater.   Debates can illuminate policy and personal differences. Polls show this race narrowing and the Republican nominee has demonstrated an unfortunate willingness to use debates to engage in juvenile taunts and name calling. 

A close race with an unpredictable candidate will make for good ratings tonight. But, the debate itself will test few of the skills needed in a prospective president and, barring a meltdown, is not likely to change the trajectory of this race.

presidential debates, Donald Trump, John Sides, Hillary Clinton

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