In 1960, on the eve of the first televised Presidential debates in United States history, America’s leading newspaper launched a pre-emptive attack on them. Pitting Vice-President Richard Nixon against his telegenic opponent, John F. Kennedy, the debates would appeal to voters “who are influenced not so much by logic and reason as by emotional, illogical factors,” the New York Times warned. “The fear is that they will not discuss the issues as much as put on a show.”
Afterwards, most journalists sounded a similar theme: The debates were hollow and superficial, highlighting Kennedy’s youthful good looks – and Nixon’s sweaty jowls – instead of substantive political matters. But voters told a very different story. “I learned more about what each man stands for in an hour than I have in two months of reading the papers,” one Detroit viewer said.
In other words, presidential debates 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 value of the debates.
Consider the buildup to tonight’s debate between President Obama and Mitt Romney. Even as the candidates tried to downplay expectations – a common campaign ploy – news reports did the same thing, reminding readers that debates rarely make a difference. Call it Hype against Hype: We’re all focused on this event, the story goes, but it doesn’t matter as much as we think.
That’s true, when it comes to wins and losses. Over and over again, studies have demonstrated that debates rarely affect popular opinion or voting behavior. But another robust body of research shows that debates do affect how much people know about the candidates – and, especially, about the issues – in a presidential campaign. And we shouldn’t forget that, either.
Consider the 1976 debate, where incumbent President Gerald R. Ford supposedly lost the White House by claiming – in the midst of the cold war – that Poland was not dominated by the Soviet Union. The comment didn’t have any measurable effect on the electoral fortunes of Ford, who actually gained ground through most of the campaign. But research also demonstrated that people who watched the debates were better informed than people who didn’t.
Ditto for the 1988 face-off between George H.W. Bush and Michael Dukakis, who was asked by newsman Bernard Shaw if he would want his wife’s murderer put to death. A longtime opponent of capital punishment – and a man of consistent principle – Mr. Dukakis said no. Stunned journalists pronounced his political epitaph right after that.
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.
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).