Politicians, pundits, and political junkies watch political debates. As a hopeless addict of the who, what, when, where, and why of politics, I find debates are a must-see.
Generally, normal folks are not compulsively drawn to the orchestrated events that are staged to look like actual forensic encounters. But the 2012 presidential race could confound conventional wisdom about the impact of debates on elections.
Samuel Nelson, chairman of the University of Toledo’s political science department, said that until now there’s not been much evidence that presidential debates play a big role in election outcomes.
“History shows they make very little difference in the end,” he said. “They may move the polls a point or two one way or the other,” but that’s part of the normal fluctuation in close elections.
“There have been memorable moments in debates,” he acknowledged. “A sweaty Richard Nixon, George H.W. Bush looking at his watch, Bill Clinton feeling your pain. But they don’t have any concrete effect on who won.”
He noted that it’s usually not a large group of people who watch televised presidential debates. Most viewers already have made up their minds.
“They’re tuning in to see if their candidate wins,” Mr. Nelson said. “They’re looking for confirmation on their choices. You want to feel good about people you’re supporting.” That’s why Democrats who back President Obama’s re-election were so upset after the first presidential debate, he suggested.
The incumbent’s lackluster performance — in contrast to GOP challenger Mitt Romney’s energy and confidence — was depressing to voters who wanted the President to come out swinging. Mr. Obama fulfilled their expectations in subsequent matchups, but did he sway undecided voters in Ohio?
Did Mr. Romney? The Republican nominee took a drubbing after his second debate. The review dismayed those who were impressed with his initial debut where, Mr. Nelson observed, “he kind of introduced himself to the public and looked pretty good” in the give and take.
The two candidates met again this week to debate foreign policy. The third televised confrontation featured topics that are not central to the presidential campaign. Ordinarily, that might mean fewer people glued to the tube.
But in this rivalry for the White House, heightened public interest in how Messrs. Obama and Romney measure up under pressure has challenged past assumptions about the ability of presidential debates to attract wide attention or wield outsized influence on elections.
The debates gave newly curious voters the chance to zero in on “body language, how people talk, behave, emotional cues, whether a person appears presidential or not,” Mr. Nelson said.
In a race this competitive, how a candidate comports himself while wrangling over issues from tax plans to contraception matters more than the rehearsed rhetoric, he said.
Just before voters have their final say at the polls, they’re not consumed with balancing one deficit reduction strategy with another or dissecting the fine print of opposing proposals, Mr. Nelson said. They’re hungry for a leader who is in touch with them, who understands what keeps them up at night, who genuinely has their best interests at heart.
A record number of Americans followed the 2012 presidential debates. More than 70 million tracked the first two events, an estimate that includes not only network television viewers but also those who used electronic devices and streaming media.
Many saw the high-stakes contenders in a different light: petty, passive, professorial, presumptuous. They witnessed how well or poorly the nominees adapted to different debate formats with a range of moderators.
Voters heard testy exchanges that bordered on contemptuousness. Lines were crossed. Disrespect and disdain were undisguised.
The best that can be said of the 2012 presidential debates was that they engaged a huge national audience and compelled it to tinker with first impressions, to temper blind hope. That they were a turning point is debatable.
Instead of playing supporting roles in shaping public opinion, the boxing matches may play decisive parts in the election. For some of us, political debates have been a popular attraction.
This year, from the contentious Republican primaries to the waning days of the general campaign, we had lots of company. The more the better.
Marilou Johanek is a columnist for The Blade. Contact her at: firstname.lastname@example.org