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October 15, 2012

Don't expect U.S. presidential debates to be a gamechanger

Wednesday marks the beginning of the U.S. presidential election debate cycle, and it'll doubtless generate immense coverage, speculation and analysis. But will it matter?

Looking back, perhaps there were only two occasions where debates made a difference. One was the John F. Kennedy-Richard Nixon series in 1960, and the other was the single encounter between Ronald Reagan and Jimmy Carter in 1980.

There were four debates in 1960, but it was the first one that had the biggest impact. Held on Sept. 26, just over six weeks before election day, it set a cool, confident, tanned, seemingly healthy Kennedy against a perspiring, uncomfortable, haggard, apparently unhealthy Nixon. Richard Daley, Chicago’s canny Democratic mayor, described Nixon’s appearance this way: “They’ve embalmed him before he even died.”

In reality, Nixon’s underlying health was far more robust than Kennedy’s. But a combination of recovery from a debilitating knee injury and a poorly conceived campaign schedule had left him exhausted. And that’s what the record television audience saw, resulting in a five-point pro-Kennedy swing in the Gallup poll.

The 1980 campaign’s debate took place on Oct. 28, just a week before election day. The public polls at that juncture generally suggested a tied race, although there were dissenters in either direction. Gallup had Carter eight points up, but the nightly tracking of Dick Wirthlin — Reagan’s private pollster — had things moving their way from Oct. 15.

In any event, it wasn’t even close on election night. Reagan’s landslide was so sweeping that Carter conceded before the polls closed on the West Coast.

The thing that 1960 and 1980 had in common was the way in which the debate process undermined the narratives underpinning the campaigns of both Nixon and Carter. Put simply, those narratives were shredded.

In Nixon’s case, much had been made of Kennedy’s alleged inexperience. President Dwight Eisenhower privately dismissed Kennedy as “that boy,” and Nixon’s public campaign went to great lengths to stress the seasoning provided by their candidate’s eight years as vice-president.

But debate television viewers didn’t see any stature gap. In effect, the process had elevated Kennedy to equal status.

Carter’s 1980 strategy was even iffier, choosing to run against a gross caricature of Reagan rather than the real thing. As the story was pitched, Reagan was a combination of bumbling and dangerous, dim-witted former actor and wannabe mad bomber. But again, the contrast on the television screen didn’t support the thesis.

Stacked up against Carter in real time, Reagan was affable and articulate, a man clearly comfortable in his own skin. And the physical comparison also worked in his favour. While Reagan looked like a president, Carter came across as a comparatively small and crabbed figure.

As for this year’s debates, President Barack Obama finds himself in the position of protecting a lead. This makes him the guy with the most to lose. Given his druthers, he’d surely prefer to run out the clock without taking any unnecessary risks.

Further, his debating skills haven’t been exercised for four years and may thus be a tad rusty. Practice sessions certainly help, but they’re no substitute for the real thing.

Republican challenger Mitt Romney, on the other hand, has recently come through an extended series of primary season debates. Although he didn’t dazzle or scintillate, he survived and occasionally prospered. And while Newt Gingrich may not be a credible presidential candidate, he’s certainly a resourceful and wily debating opponent. So Romney’s survival says something.

Back in 1960, Kennedy had an acute awareness of the dynamics inherent in this kind of situation. As he privately confided, Nixon was “a damn fool to agree to debate me on an equal-time TV basis.” He wasn’t denigrating Nixon’s debating ability, but rather recognizing the political realities.

However, expectations have evolved over the last 50 years, and refusing to debate at all would be a difficult position to defend. Consequently, Obama has little choice.

And the bottom line? When all’s said and done, chances are that the 2012 debates will conform to the normal pattern. In other words, they’ll make no material difference. Still, you never know.

Pat Murphy worked in the Canadian financial services industry for more than 30 years. (Troy Media/

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