Looking Backward in Anticipation: The Presidential Debates
We’re one day way from the first debate between President Barack Obama and Gov. Mitt Romney. USF’s Michael Gibbons takes a look at what’s at stake.
With the Presidential Debates between President Obama and former Governor Romney about to begin, the media have begun to focus on previous debates for the kinds of things each candidate should, could, or must do if the debates are to work in their favor. In considering the potential effect of the debates it is important to keep in mind that in the recent past the immediate post-debate analyses have sometimes been embarrassing for a number of media outlets. For example, in the 2008 election, focusing exclusively on style, CNN announced success for Sarah Palin. It also pronounced John McCain the winner of the first presidential debate when next day polls showed Barack Obama with a far greater margin of victory about winning the debate among voters. The electronic media have also focused on the use of zingers or individual sound bites, the effects of which are overestimated. Lloyd Bentsen’s famous “you’re no Jack Kennedy” comeback to Dan Quayle did not win the election for the Dukakis/Bentsen ticket. Reagan’s repeated comment to Carter – “There you go again.” – had nothing near the effect as the U. S. military’s failure to provide back-up helicopters and air support for an abortive rescue mission of the American hostages in Iran in the summer of 1980.
When all is said and done, only two debates can be said to have a significant effect. The first in 1960 in which then Senator John F. Kennedy outshone Vice President Richard Nixon on a number of levels. The other was 2000 in which pundits assert that the polls shifted after Vice President Gore lost ground as he came off less likeable. Even in the latter case, what really shifted the election of 2000 was the purging of the voting polls of 94,000 voters in Florida by Governor Jeb Bush, the irregularities in Democratic precincts, and 98,000 votes cast for third party candidate Ralph Nader that allowed the election in Florida to be close in the first place. And, of course, Gore won the popular vote by over 500,000.
For the most part, people who actually watch the debates tend to come away from them with their decisions reinforced. Nonetheless, the debates are likely to be Romney’s last chance at changing the growing support for Obama, particularly in battleground states. Such an accomplishment is highly unlikely barring a complete meltdown by Obama. Although the mere appearance on the same stage could result in a slight, temporary bump in support for Romney, erasing the lead that Obama has is quite another thing. After all, Romney received no bump at all from the Republican National Convention. And even Fox News has Obama ahead by 4 percentage points with bigger leads in swing states.
All that said, it is possible that something of significance can be decided in these debates. With the focus on the economy for the first debate, the election could come down to a choice between the following. On the one hand there are the successes of the New Deal, Medicare, Medicaid, Social Security (including survivor benefits for minor children), women’s health and safety (including not trivializing rape) and the role of government in advancing the American Dream for the middle class that is traced back to FDR and Lincoln. On the other hand, there is the Republican program with its goal of gutting Medicare, Medicaid, privatizing Social Security, limiting health care related to rape for women and young girls, and so forth. To achieve this it oscillates between two agendas. First, there is Andrew Carnegie’s Gospel of Wealth that emphasizes trickle-down economics in the long run (despite, Carnegie acknowledged, the horrible suffering it caused) and philanthropy. This requires redistributing income from the middle class to the super wealthy and redistributing the tax burden from the wealthy to the middle class and working poor. It should come as no surprise then that Romney is fine with the wealthy paying no taxes but chafes at the idea that the working poor pay no income tax. The other agenda, the one Paul Ryan’s endorses in his vision for Americans, is Ayn Rand’s philosophy that emphasizes selfishness as a virtue and could not care less about whether wealth of the top 1 percent trickles down to anybody. And it certainly has no tolerance for philanthropy for those it considers parasites (her words) and overly dependent because they receive Social Security or Medicare (Romney’s word).
In short, this could be a momentous election.