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What history tells us about presidential debates
Imagery is all-important. Candidates will surely suck up to swing states. And the slightest slight could come to define Obama and Romney for years
Paul Brandus
Paul Brandus
B

y now there have been countless articles on tonight's debate between Barack Obama and Mitt Romney. The talking heads have pushed plenty of hot air around saying, in often grandiose terms, what each candidate must do and what it means for Nov. 6.

There seems to be the view that debates are real game-changers. They usually are not. Going back to 1960, when Richard Nixon and John F. Kennedy went mano-a-mano three times, it's clear that what debates usually do is reinforce existing views that voters have of both candidates. Unless something dramatic happens. Which usually doesn't.

Imagery is all-important

No doubt you've heard the story about the first JFK-Nixon debate. Nixon had been ill, refused makeup and sweated profusely, while Kennedy had flown in from California sporting a deep tan. It made a lasting impression on television viewers — but not on radio listeners, who thought Nixon won. But here's the key point: Few people remember what either man actually said.

There seems to be the view that debates are real game-changers. They usually are not.

Their debate established the primacy of television as the ultimate political medium and the importance of looking good. Studies have shown that attractive people tend to get hired and promoted more easily than those who aren't, and historians have wondered whether two of our greatest presidents — an unsightly Abraham Lincoln, or Franklin Roosevelt in braces and a wheelchair — could be elected today.

After the three 1960 debates, by the way, Nixon never debated again. Not with Hubert Humphrey in 1968, not with George McGovern in 1972. If he had, he would have looked better. Nixon often had a tan then, thanks to the purchase of homes in sunny Key Biscayne, Fla., and San Clemente, Calif.

You can be sure that both Obama and Romney will be, as was later said of Nixon, "rested and ready." As for both men downplaying expectations of themselves — rubbish.

The reinforcing effect

In 2012, most Americans who will vote have already made up their minds. Tens of millions will back Romney; tens of millions will back Obama. They need no convincing, particularly not in this hyper-partisan era, and will see tonight's debate as a validation for their pre-existing views — what I call "the reinforcing effect." We know, for example, that Latinos and blacks will go for Obama, while whites and men will go for Romney. We also know that when it comes to states, and the quest for 270 electoral votes, that Obama will carry California, Romney Texas, and so forth. Frankly, most states and most voters don't matter at this point. Both candidates tonight will try to "reinforce" the views that the vast majority of voters already have of them.

Swing-state focus

The election battle now is really a fight for the small number of undecideds who live in Florida, Ohio, Virginia, and a handful of other swing states. That's what will decide the election, and that's why both men tonight will do what they've been doing for months: targeting particular comments at this shrinking pool of voters and handful of states.

For example, swing-state Iowa (six electoral votes) happens to be the No. 2 wind-power producing state in the nation. More than 200 companies and 7,000 jobs in the Hawkeye State are linked to wind power. Yet Romney has opposed the extension of tax credits for the industry, a move that has angered even Republicans. Iowa's popular GOP Gov. Terry Branstad says Romney "needs to get educated" on the issue. You can be sure that if given the chance, Obama will bring this up tonight. Ditto his rescue of the auto industry, which is linked to one in eight jobs in Ohio (18 electoral votes).  

You can expect Romney to bring up looming defense cuts which could, according to one estimate, cost 132,000 jobs in Virginia, a big military state (13 electoral votes). Romney also continues to hammer away on jobs, a vulnerable issue for Obama nationwide, but particularly in Nevada, which has the nation's highest unemployment (12.1 percent) — and Florida (8.8 percent). Those states have six and 29 electoral votes, respectively.

Don't give your opponent an opening

In 1976, President Gerald Ford was running an uphill battle against his Democratic opponent, former Georgia Gov. Jimmy Carter. Had Ford, the incumbent, been ahead in the polls, he might not have had any reason to debate. But a struggling economy and lingering anger over his pardon of President Nixon in the wake of Watergate made Ford the underdog.

If Carter was ahead, why would he debate? Because being onstage with the president of the United States, being his equal, elevates any man and Carter jumped at the chance.

What did Ford do? During a question about foreign policy, the commander-in-chief said, incredibly, that the Soviet Union, America's only true global rival, did not dominate Eastern Europe. The Russians did, of course — with an iron fist. Given a chance to clarify his remarks, Ford repeated the error.

Carter pounced. He never lost the lead — though Ford closed the gap in the final days — and was elected. Foreign policy wasn't even a big issue in 1976; but Ford's error reinforced an image that many Americans had, that he was a blundering, error-prone president.

Many viewers tonight will tune in hoping for something similar: an unscripted error, forced or unforced, that could dominate the news cycle for a few days.

The little things aren't so little

Think Florida and the Supreme Court cost Al Gore the presidency? He might have lost it the night he sighed — repeatedly — during a debate with George W. Bush. Or in a later clash, when he strolled over to invade George W. Bush's space. Both incidents reinforced a view that some voters had of Gore that year — that he was arrogant and condescending.

In 1992, President George H.W Bush looked at his watch during a town hall; viewers got the impression that he was bored and disengaged. Again, it reinforced the view that Poppy, as Mr. Bush was known, had better things to do. Disrespectful, some thought.

So President Obama, Gov. Romney: Be on your best behavior tonight. The slightest slight may come to define you for years.

Read more political coverage at The Week's 2012 Election Center.

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