For decades, it was a matter of conviction among political professionals that most Americans didn’t begin to focus on the presidential election until after the World Series. That’s just one of many old chestnuts that have been chucked out the window in the new age.
The old formula won’t work anymore. So the new shorthand is that the decisive phase of the election begins with the first debate, which will be Wednesday night at the University of Denver.
It may seem that presidential campaigns have several resets, most recently the dueling national political conventions. There’s some truth to that.
But the twin acceptance speeches of late summer were campaign set pieces, with every element — venue, setting, length, topic, atmospherics, including the podium and the teleprompters — controlled by the candidates’ hired hands. There were no uncertainties, no hidden obstacles, no opportunities for forced errors.
Wednesday is different in every way. The campaigns have been involved in negotiations with the bipartisan Commission on Presidential Debates that oversees the events and regulates the conditions.
But the difference is that a live, televised presidential debate is an opportunity to see candidates interact with each other, handle unanticipated thrusts and parries, and in rare but revealing occasions show spontaneity.
It is great theater. But it is also illuminating theater, even if some of the best lines (“There you go again,” former Gov. Ronald Reagan said to President Jimmy Carter in 1980) have been scripted.
There have been several revealing moments, unforgettable elements of debate folklore. Such as the exasperated sighs of Vice President Al Gore during his debate with Gov. George W. Bush in Boston in 2000. Or the devastating glimpse of President George H.W. Bush looking at his wristwatch in Richmond in 1992, as if to suggest that he couldn’t wait to get off the stage he shared with Bill Clinton.
“I saw him looking at his watch,” Mr. Clinton said in an interview four years ago. “And I thought, I felt, when I saw it, that he was, you know, uncomfortable in that setting and wanted it to be over with.”
No one knows for sure whether debates change history. An enduring piece of conventional wisdom is that Sen. John. Kennedy won the 1960 election because he looked robust and appealing in his crisp blue suit in his first debate while his opponent, Vice President Richard Nixon, looked fatigued and wan, especially because he was wearing a gray suit.
The impact of this debate — and whether in fact the people who saw it on television thought Mr. Kennedy had won, while those who heard it on the radio thought that Mr. Nixon had won — has itself been a subject of debate for a half century. But there is no debate on this: It’s not optimal to appear to perspire or to fade into the background in a gray suit.
A separate debate has sprouted in recent years, questioning whether these events matter. John Sides, a George Washington University political scientist, wrote in the current Washington Monthly: “What history can tell us is that presidential debates, while part of how the game is played, are rarely what decides the game itself.”
Mr. Sides cites several studies — plus a 1960 Gallup poll showing that Mr. Nixon led by a single point beforehand and fell behind by 3 points afterward, which may be statistically insignificant — to support his argument.
But they are part of the process, and it is impossible to say in advance what might become an important campaign symbol in retrospect.
Wednesday’s debate will include six 15-minute segments, half of them on the economy. One will be on the role of government, and here the two candidates might provide some valuable insights into their philosophy. The Associated Press and the National Constitution Center this month released a poll showing that only two in five Americans believe the government is assuring the well-being of Americans.
That finding suggests a series of searching questions, examining whether the nominees believe the government is failing to address Americans’ needs or whether they believe the current conception of the government’s role is inappropriate to the times.
Whether presidential debates change the outcome is probably a lot less important than whether they inform the electorate.
This is presidential politics, not a World Series game. In fact, this year the debates will be over before the Series is.
David Shribman is executive editor of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.
Contact him at: firstname.lastname@example.org.
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