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Media shouldn't dismiss value of Romney, Obama presidential debate

Presidential debates – like tonight's between Mitt Romney and President Obama – are educational. The voters know it, and the statistics show it. But somebody forgot to tell our news organizations, which continue to dismiss the real importance of the debates.

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Yet Dukakis was already sinking in the polls, and there’s no evidence that the debate did anything to submerge him further. It did enhance viewers’ ability to correctly answer questions about the two candidates’ political positions, on the death penalty and a wide range of other issues.

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That’s been the pattern ever since. From George H.W. Bush checking his watch in his 1992 debate against Bill Clinton to Al Gore’s audible sighs when he faced Bush’s son eight years later, the pundocracy has played up each and every little gaffe as a potential game-changer. And then, like the Grinch who stole Election Day, it dourly reminds us that debates can’t really change the game.

That’s only true if you regard politics itself as a kind of sport. And the campaigns do exactly that, of course, trying to score every point that they can. They’ve seen all the statistics, about how debates don’t influence voter preference, but they always worry that this debate might be different. So they prepare their game plan months in advance and – as the big day approaches – they haggle over the rules.

So the Ford and Carter campaigns negotiated their now-famous “belt-buckle” agreement, requiring each candidate’s lectern to intersect his torso at waist height; that way, neither man would appear taller than the other. Clinton and Bush Senior battled at length over whether they would have drinking water on stage, and whether it would be located on a table or on the floor.

But these rituals aren’t just horse races, to borrow the other sports metaphor that pervades our election news coverage. They’re also classrooms, and schoolhouses, and universities. In an era of 24-7 media cacaphony, they’re one of the only lessons that the campaigns can’t script entirely on their own. And they teach us more than we realize, about the candidates and – even more – about ourselves.

“Anytime you get the candidates for president of the United States on the same stage, at the same time, talking about the same things, it’s good for democracy,” longtime moderator Jim Lehrer said, in a 2001 address. Mr. Lehrer will be there again tonight, officiating the first of three debates between Barack Obama and Mitt Romney. And no matter who loses, we’ll all win, in all of the ways that matter the most.

Jonathan Zimmerman is a professor of history and education at New York University. He is the author of “Small Wonder: The Little Red Schoolhouse in History and Memory” (Yale University Press).


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