Network News

X My Profile
View More Activity

Too much ado about debates?



Do debates really matter? Photo by Mark Wilson/Getty Images

Over the weekend, there were three debates in two of the most hotly contested Democratic Senate primaries in the country.

Colorado Sen. Michael Bennet and former state House Speaker Andrew Romanoff squared off Friday night while Arkansas Sen. Blanche Lincoln and Lt. Gov Bill Halter debated on both Friday and Saturday.

In the wake of the tete a tetes, each campaign trumpeted its victory. An example: "Both Arkansas and national reporters agree -- Bill Halter (and Arkansas working families) were the clear winners in today's debate in front of the Associated Press statewide editors," crowed Halter's campaign.

Look deeper though and it becomes clear that the universe of people watching these debates is minuscule and, therefore, it's difficult to attach too much political significance to any one of them.

In Colorado, the debate was taped Friday night and ran Saturday on one local television station in the middle of a blizzard. In Arkansas, the Friday night debate was broadcast on a single local station while the Saturday square-off was not covered live by any television station in the state.

The simple fact is that the teeny audiences for these debates mean that their influence is naturally limited. By and large, the people who watch (or attend) these sorts of debates are either a) partisans who already their mind made up about who they support or b) reporters for whom debates provide a useful angle on which to write about a race. (The Fix pleads absolutely guilty on the second count.)

Does all that mean that all debates are meaningless? Absolutely not.

Debates that have wide statewide television coverage -- and happen in close proximity to the actual primary or general election vote -- can matter hugely in determining results.

Look no further than the Massachusetts Senate special election for evidence of the impact a debate can have. Eight days before the vote, Scott Brown was still regarded as a longshot when he and state Attorney General Martha Coakley squared off.

Brown's stellar debate performance, which was broadcast live across the state and moderated by David Gergen, catapulted the little-known state senator not only into the national limelight but also put him on the radar of many Massachusetts voters who were paying scant attention to the race prior to the debate.

(Another example of this phenomenon: The rise of Nick Clegg in the British elections. Clegg's performance in the first debate, which was broadcast live across the country, turned a two-person contest between Gordon Brown and David Cameron into a legitimate three-way race.)

The other way that debates -- even those with tiny viewership relative to the number of voters in any election -- can matter is if they create windows of opportunity for underdog candidates to make up ground.

The best, recent example of that came in late October 2007 when, in a debate at Drexel University, then Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton -- then the clear frontrunner for the Democratic presidential nomination -- stumbled over a question of whether she thought illegal immigrants should get drivers licenses.

What seemed like an afterthought in a very contentious debate that centered on the Iraq war (among other weighty topics) wound up signaling the beginning of Clinton's decline as the driver's license equivocation came to symbolize everything voters disliked about her.

So, debates can matter. But, the reality is that most don't simply because the audience is not only small but unrepresentative of the broader electorate.

By Chris Cillizza  |  April 26, 2010; 3:12 PM ET
Categories:  Senate  
Save & Share:  Send E-mail   Facebook   Twitter   Digg   Yahoo Buzz   Del.icio.us   StumbleUpon   Technorati   Google Buzz   Previous: Can 2010 be a 2008 repeat?
Next: Joe Lieberman on the importance of being (an) independent

Comments

Debates aren't pivotal except for the most superficial reasons. McCain didn't lose to Obama because he failed to make coherent points, he lost to Obama because he acted like a spoiled adolescent. Yeah that was useful information, and it was germane, but not every debate is going to pivot that way. McCain could have been courteous and just as incoherent and many would have said he did a great job.

Most voters aren't smart enough to follow a real debate not couched in simple applause lines, and too many people who are smart enough are just going to root for their candidate.

And when people can watch Palin/Biden and think that the village idiot won over the elder statesman, the whole thing is useless.

Posted by: Noacoler | April 26, 2010 8:41 PM | Report abuse

I don't see how anyone could have a problem with David Gergen. Yeah he's a Republican but he's not a neocon nor a teabagger and every time I've seen him speak he's been courteous and mild of manner. I wish there were more Republicans like him.

Posted by: Noacoler | April 26, 2010 7:44 PM | Report abuse

Drindl, I like Gergen as a moderator. I bet Bill White would love to have him as a moderator in debates with Goodhair. However, it is looking more and more as if Perry is going to DUCK and Refuse to debate White.

StreetCorner, send your Perry puffery to his campaign, and when our Guv hires you get him to debate White.

Posted by: mark_in_austin | April 26, 2010 6:53 PM | Report abuse

Sorry, I'm confused by the significance of the emphatic phrase "in the middle of a blizzard." Depending on the technology, TV may still be viewable in a blizzard -- and we just saw the two February blizzards save the day for NBC in hugely boosting viewership for the Winter Olympics throughout much of the country. It's literally a case of a captive audience. Wouldn't viewership be far less on a balmy spring evening? Wouldn't a blizzard boost ratings?

Posted by: fairfaxvoter | April 26, 2010 6:51 PM | Report abuse


The March 27 shooting death of rancher Rob Krentz on his property in southeastern Arizona


____________________________________


The democrats are more concerned about the GRAVE INJUSTICE of asking someone to show their papers - as COMPARED TO THE CRIME OF THE ILLEGALS SHOOTING AMERICAN CITIZENS.


This where the democrats are right now.

This is what the democrats think about ENFORCING THE LAW.

Show us your papers, Comrade.

.

Posted by: 37thand0street | April 26, 2010 5:35 PM | Report abuse

Lets stop arguing about health insurance - AND WORK TOGETHER TO GET ALL THE ILLEGAL ALIENS OUT OF THE COUNTRY.


That is something we all can agree on.

.

Posted by: 37thand0street | April 26, 2010 5:05 PM | Report abuse

Nothing says "fiscal conservative" better than a Republican swearing NOT to hold the irresponsible Wall Street greedheads accountable.


McConnell predicts filibuster of financial reform:

"The Wall Street reform bill may eventually pass in the Senate but not before it faces a filibuster, according Minority Leader Mitch McConnell."

http://videocafe.crooksandliars.com/david/mcconnell-predicts-filibuster-financial-refo


The right wing corporate shills will filibuster until the lobbyists get the Wall Street Reform bill just right....for themselves.

Republicansim is a mental illness!


Posted by: DrainYou
------------------------------------------
What's more greedy than a liberal expecting EVERYTHING to paid with OPM?

Posted by: leapin | April 26, 2010 5:04 PM | Report abuse

YOU DON'T MESS WITH THE JOHAN.

Seriously though, Gallenod, you're right that one need not even open his mouth in order to provide copious material for attack ads. My earlier statement was something of an overgeneralization. Naturally, body language is just as important as a verbal gaffe, because it allows one's opponents to attack without having to worry about any pesky facts getting in the way.

I remember back in the summer of 2008 when it was all over but the shouting in the Democratic presidential primary, a fervent Hillary Clinton supporter on this board tried to use a one-millisecond televised shot of Michelle Obama's facial expression while Clinton was talking as evidence against voting for Barack Obama. Because you just can't, in good conscience, vote for a candidate married to someone who may have, for a split second, sported a look that could be interpreted as anything other than respectful.

Posted by: GJonahJameson | April 26, 2010 5:00 PM | Report abuse


Lets stop arguing about health insurance - AND WORK TOGETHER TO GET ALL THE ILLEGAL ALIENS OUT OF THE COUNTRY.


That is something we all can agree on.

.

Posted by: 37thand0street | April 26, 2010 5:00 PM | Report abuse

In a Thick Russian accent

Comrade Obama, show us your papers.

Posted by: 37thand0street | April 26, 2010 4:56 PM | Report abuse


>>>>>>

Comrade Obama, show us your papers.

.

Posted by: 37thand0street | April 26, 2010 4:55 PM | Report abuse

>>>>>>>>

Comrade Obama, show us your papers.


.

Posted by: 37thand0street | April 26, 2010 4:52 PM | Report abuse

Oops, sorry, that should be Jonah, not Johan. :)

Posted by: Gallenod | April 26, 2010 4:48 PM | Report abuse

Johan, they don't even have to say anything stupid, just check their watch while their opponent is speaking (like they have more important things to do right now) or roll their eyes at a talking point (regardless of factual content) and it makes the news.

Posted by: Gallenod | April 26, 2010 4:45 PM | Report abuse

Nothing says "fiscal conservative" better than a Republican swearing NOT to hold the irresponsible Wall Street greedheads accountable.


McConnell predicts filibuster of financial reform:

"The Wall Street reform bill may eventually pass in the Senate but not before it faces a filibuster, according Minority Leader Mitch McConnell."

http://videocafe.crooksandliars.com/david/mcconnell-predicts-filibuster-financial-refo


The right wing corporate shills will filibuster until the lobbyists get the Wall Street Reform bill just right....for themselves.

Republicansim is a mental illness!

Posted by: DrainYou | April 26, 2010 4:43 PM | Report abuse

37thand0street's got a good point here -- you might obliterate your opponent in the debate and barely have anyone notice, but say something stupid and you're never going to hear the end of it. That's definitely one of the reasons why debates matter, as depressing as it is -- it's an opportunity to find more material to go negative on one's opponent.

I was going to tack on "when one does not have any accomplishments of one's own to tout" at the end of that last sentence, but anymore, even if one candidate does have a long list of accomplishments to tout, he will still go negative eventually because negative campaigning is a proven election-winner at anything above the local level.

Posted by: GJonahJameson | April 26, 2010 4:26 PM | Report abuse

JRM -- Palin will have no debates. Now when she 'speaks' somewhere, they confiscate cell phones at the door, and refuse to allow reporters in the same room -- they have to go somewhere else and watch a feed.

Maybe she's 'debate' is she got to prerecord and have someone edit her answers, though.

Posted by: drindl | April 26, 2010 4:23 PM | Report abuse

Can't wait for SP's next "debate"

Posted by: JRM2 | April 26, 2010 4:11 PM | Report abuse

DEBATES


The debates are full of minefields - if a candidate gives a good performance - and makes good points - the low television viewership insures that few will see it.

HOWEVER - make a gaffe or say something like the Soviet Union does not dominate Eastern Europe -


AND EVERY TV STATION WILL PLAY THAT GAFFE OVER AND OVER AND OVER AND OVER AGAIN.

They will wait a few days, and play it again.


Then again.

And when the election comes, they will play it a few more times.

Do you think that the closing of the polls on election will stop them from playing it again.


No, they will show the gaffe again the next day -


.

Posted by: 37thand0street | April 26, 2010 4:08 PM | Report abuse

The leftists are becoming VIOLENT - in their protests in Arizona - and they are vandalizing public property.

HHHMMMM

OK all the leftists who were warning about the Tea Party movement - please get on the phone and call YOUR SIDE AND TELL THEM TO RESTRAIN THEMSELVES.


.

Posted by: 37thand0street | April 26, 2010 4:04 PM | Report abuse

"They probably mattered in Brown v Coakley since she came across as wooden and he did well."

The post-debate interview of Deeds didn't help his campaign either, as I recall. Which is not quite the same as foot-in-mouthing it in the actual debate.


Posted by: bsimon1 | April 26, 2010 3:55 PM | Report abuse

'Brown's stellar debate performance, which was broadcast live across the state and moderated by David Gergen,'

This was an example of the pathetic campaign she ran, that she would have participated in a debate with a rightwinger like Gergen as a 'moderator.'

Posted by: drindl | April 26, 2010 3:54 PM | Report abuse

Fix said: "In Colorado, the debate was taped Friday night and ran Saturday on one local cable television station in the middle of a blizzard."

To be fair, it's not as if the entire state was getting hammered with snow.

Posted by: RobInDenver | April 26, 2010 3:46 PM | Report abuse

Sadly, since the parties wrested control of the presidential debates from the League of Women Voters, most of what we've seen at the subsequent presidential debates have been dueling talking points sometimes accompnanied by personal gaffes (checking watches, yawning, eye-rolling, etc.)

Most politicians do not want debates that include any form of personal risk or include moderated fact-checking and follow-up questions. While it is reasonable to expect a chance to review and prepare for debate topics in advance, and even see a list of the initial questions, candidates who place restrictions on topics, questions, or follow-up questions (of either party) go to the bottom of my list of acceptable candidates.

Debates can be useful, but only if they're debates, not highly-staged joint appearances.

Posted by: Gallenod | April 26, 2010 3:45 PM | Report abuse

I think they matter when people don't have hard formed opinions. They probably mattered in Brown v Coakley since she came across as wooden and he did well. Many people didn't really know about Brown, so he had a lot of room to grow.

Another example of this is Obama vs McCain. Obviously everyone knew who Barack Obama was at that time, but there were a lot of people who didn't really know much about him. He was still new to the political scene and really hadn't started to campaign in earnest until September. McCain was leading Obama in the polls until the two started debating. People got to see Obama in his element for the first time and Obama started crushing McCain in the polls soon after. I think there were three elements in Obama's late surge. One was the Lehman Bros collapse. Dems are typically more trusted in these types of crises. The second was the outing of Palin in a series of disasterous interviews with Gibson and Couric. She simply couldn't be trusted to be a heartbeat away from the Presidency. This pick reflected poorly on McCain. The third factor in Obama's surge was the debates. People got to see Obama for the first time and saw how he handled himself (and saw how McCain handled himself too. He made the opposite impression)
The pundits loved to declare how McCain won the debates, but it was clear the public favored Obama's performance.

I think any election with relative unknown has the chance to be affected by debates. They provide some of the rawest, unscripted insight into a politician that you might never see. And in this youtube era, people don't need to watch the debate live to be affected. A strong or weak or gaffe filled performance can travel by word of mouth and people will eventually see.

Posted by: DDAWD | April 26, 2010 3:24 PM | Report abuse

Let The Games Begin !!!

.

Posted by: 37thand0street | April 26, 2010 3:24 PM | Report abuse

The comments to this entry are closed.

 
 
RSS Feed
Subscribe to The Post

© 2010 The Washington Post Company