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Yes, debates matter

ElectionsBarack ObamaMitt RomneyGeorge W. BushRichard NixonAl Gore

The first debate between President Barack Obama and former governor Mitt Romney is over, and there was a clear winner: Mitt Romney. Even President Obama's own team realized the obvious by suggesting veteran moderator Jim Lehrer did a poor job. (News flash — debate winners do not complain about the moderator.) Mr. Romney was clearly more engaged and engaging. He defended his policies and interacted with President Obama. President Obama's answers were often meandering and unfocused, and when Mr. Romney spoke, the president just looked down or seemingly ignored him. At one point, the president even asked the moderator if they could just move on to a new topic.

It was simply a bad night for the president. Perhaps worse for Mr. Obama, the expectations were high for him. By 2 to 1, surveys showed Americans expected Mr. Obama to win the exchange. A CNN poll taken just after the debate showed Mr. Romney was deemed the winner by a 2-to-1 margin. So Mr. Romney won by winning and he won by beating the expectations game.

Regardless of who won, a more important question may be: Does it matter? Or, more precisely, do debates matter? The simple answer is yes. We have all heard the story about the first televised debate between John Kennedy and Richard Nixon in 1960. According to the legend, television presented millions of Americans a stark contrast between a youthful and energetic Kennedy and a sweaty and pasty-faced Nixon (who was recovering from a recent illness). The legend goes on to tell how folks listening to the debate on radio felt Nixon had won, but most folks watched the debate and television catapulted Kennedy to the White House.

It's a fun story, but one that actually understates the value and influence of debates. In 1960, Richard Nixon was a two-term vice president under popular President Dwight Eisenhower. He was expected to be a knowledgeable and experienced leader. With Kennedy there were more doubts. Was Kennedy the real deal or just a wealthy playboy? Going into the debate Kennedy had more to prove, and over the course of the exchange he demonstrated a cool resolve and firm grasp of national and world politics. Kennedy won the debate because he beat the expectations game, and he demonstrated that he was every bit as ready to be president as the sitting vice president.

After Kennedy/Nixon, there would not be another presidential debate until 1976. Lyndon Johnson feared that he would not be as dynamic as Barry Goldwater in 1964, and Nixon had bad memories of the 1960 exchange. When debates resumed in 1976, with Gerald Ford and Jimmy Carter, they again proved important. The 1976 race was a close one, perhaps closer than it should have been given the long shadow of Watergate and Mr. Ford's controversial pardon of Nixon. But Mr. Ford had battled Mr. Carter to a draw in national polls. The first debate had little impact on the race, but when the two men met in early October for their second encounter, Mr. Ford answered a question about Eastern Europe in which he flatly denied that the region was dominated by the Soviet Union, though it was. This fed a perception that Mr. Ford, the accidental president, was not ready. Mr. Carter won a narrow victory three weeks later.

In 1980, it was Mr. Carter on the losing end of a debate. In the midst of a near decade-long economic crisis of high inflation and high unemployment, Americans were ready to fire Mr. Carter. But the Carter campaign had successfully portrayed Ronald Reagan as a cowboy and a lightweight not to be trusted with the presidency. The race was close when they met for their only debate, and Mr. Reagan used the encounter to demonstrate that he could be trusted, and in his closing comments he asked Americans if they were truly better off than they had been four years earlier. The collective answer sealed Mr. Carter's fate.

In 2000, everyone expected Vice President Al Gore to best George W. Bush. Yet over the course of three debates Americans saw three different Al Gores. In Mr. Bush, they saw someone comfortable in his own skin. It mattered. When Mr. Bush faced John Kerry in 2004, Mr. Kerry was trailing going into the first debate. Mr. Bush seemed tired and disengaged, and Mr. Kerry bested him. However, during the debate, Mr. Kerry made reference to U.S. military action needing to pass a "global test" where the U.S. must prove to the world that the action is legitimate. Mr. Kerry benefited from the debate, but the Bush campaign successfully used the global test line to undermine Mr. Kerry's success. Still, Mr. Kerry cut a 6-point deficit to a narrow loss that came down to about 70,000 votes in Ohio.

So yes, debates matter, and Mitt Romney has won Round One. Expect his poll numbers to improve and worried Republicans to start feeling more secure. But there are two presidential debates remaining, and I doubt President Obama will show up for the next debate as ill prepared as he was this time.

Todd Eberly is coordinator of Public Policy Studies and assistant professor in the Department of Political Science at St. Mary's College of Maryland. His email is teeberly@smcm.edu.

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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ElectionsBarack ObamaMitt RomneyGeorge W. BushRichard NixonAl Gore
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