Presidential Debates Seldom Shake Solid Support


"If Kitty Dukakis were raped and murdered. . . ." That was the strange beginning of the most famous exchange of the 1988 presidential debates, an exchange between CNN's Bernard Shaw and Michael Dukakis in which Mr. Dukakis' impassive and clinical response defending his opposition to the death penalty sealed his fate in the election itself.

That is the conventional wisdom -- but it is wrong.

In fact, hours before that final presidential debate, ABC's Peter Jennings had reported that Mr. Bush's lead appeared to be insurmountable, in all likelihood regardless of what happened in the debate.

The exaggerated perception of presidential debates as a possible transformer of electoral fortunes is an enduring one.

In 1984, James Baker, President Reagan's chief of staff, fearing just such a turnabout, urged the president not to debate at all. Mr. Baker must have thought his worst fears had come true when Ronald Reagan, in his first debate with Walter Mondale, put on the most embarrassing debate performance in presidential debate history -- stumbling, stammering, forgetting, making long and eerie pauses as he seemed to grope for words that just wouldn't come. Yet his lead in the polls dropped less than the margin of error.

In the second debate, his performance improved slightly, but only slightly. Finally, Mr. Reagan's closing remarks consisted of a meandering -- and perilously close to incoherent -- account of his travels along the California coast. But he had performed well enough to provide his supporters a basis for plausibly denying that he was too incoherent to continue in office.

The reality is that contrary to conventional wisdom, presidential debates are only likely to affect election outcomes when support for the leading candidate is soft or unstable. Once a candidate's support solidifies, he is accorded a presumption, meaning that any doubt regarding his performance is resolved in his favor.

The harder and more stable the support, the stronger the protective presumption. Almost nothing Mr. Reagan said in 1984 could have hurt him; almost nothing Mr. Dukakis said in 1988 could have helped him. That apparently dramatic defining moment of the 1988 debates merely ratified the already-determined results.

Conventional wisdom also suggests that the commission of gaffes poses a threat to presidential candidates in debate. But the protective presumption for the lead candidate whose support is strong and stable allows that candidate significant latitude to make mistakes without incurring electoral costs.

It is instructive to note the distinction that William Safire makes in his "Language of Politics" dictionary between a blooper (a slip of the tongue) and a gaffe (a blunder, not necessarily verbal). Slips of the tongue abound in presidential campaigns and have almost no effect on support; gaffes, however, if significant enough, can affect the fortunes of the candidate with soft support. And some gaffes are not obvious at the time of commission.

Everyone "knows" that in the 1960 presidential debates Richard Nixon lost because he looked terrible, a fact believed validated by surveys indicating that people who heard the debates on radio tended to think he did well, whereas people who saw the debates on television tended to think he didn't do so well.

Maybe, but on reviewing the debates, Mr. Nixon just doesn't look that bad. There were two gaffes, however, that have received perhaps insufficient historical note. First, Mr. Nixon often tried to minimize the difference between his and Mr. Kennedy's "goals," thus inadvertently conceding that Mr. Kennedy was authentic presidential timber. Second, on several opportunities to follow-up Kennedy responses, Nixon inexplicably responded that he had no comment, creating implicit concessions of Kennedy's points.

The question in 1992 comes down to this: whether Mr. Clinton's somewhat soft, but reasonably stable support (the margin has been reliably around ten points for weeks) offers Mr. Bush significant opportunities to use the debates to achieve an upset victory. Possibly, but not probably.

For Mr. Bush to make gains will require both well-planned substantive and stylistic strategies along with a near-perfect execution of them, especially in the all-important first debate. But the public statements of Mr. Bush during this campaign suggest absence of a winning strategy.

George Bush has been unable thus far, for example, to dilute discussion of the economy -- a no-winner for Mr. Bush -- with discussion of foreign policy, despite the fact that this is Mr. Bush's greatest strength and Mr. Clinton's greatest weakness.

A significant opportunity presented itself, however, when Mr. Clinton several weeks ago confused -- not just misspoke -- the Patriot missile with the smart bombs used in the Persian Gulf war. This is a serious gaffe, not a blooper. It is a greater blunder than Geraldine Ferraro's confusing "first use" of nuclear weapons with "first strike," and she, of course, was only a vice presidential candidate.

Mr. Bush should make the opportunity in the coming debates to exploit this gaffe to his advantage, as well as Mr. Clinton's not just waffling, but bizarre statement of his position on the congressional vote to authorize force in the Persian Gulf crisis: "I guess I would have voted with the majority if it was a close vote. But I agree with the argument the minority made."

Political debates, like political campaigns in general, are struggles for salience and meaning: what issues will be discussed and which will be ignored and what their significance is. Part of the problem with presidential debates is that they often ignore important issues and focus on unimportant issues.

Most debate aficionados recall Mr. Nixon and Mr. Kennedy arguing policy toward the islands of Quemoy and Matsu in the Formosa Strait, but few recall that the point at issue was when and whether to defend these islands from Chinese attack, and even fewer recall who took what position. Mr. Bush needs to show debate leadership by stressing and taking credit for serious issues, such as his paving the way for the first real hopes for peace between Israel and the Arabs. Such an emphasis not only serves to illustrate his foreign policy acumen, but could help sway some Jewish voters from their traditional Democratic leanings.

In 1992, an absolutely critical issue which has unfortunately been ignored is the issue of nuclear proliferation -- like the deficit, a neglected issue that significantly affects future generations. A fully developed plan and "vision" in the absence of one from Mr. Clinton could not only highlight Mr. Bush's expertise in foreign policy, but could also attract some much needed support from younger voters. Nuclear proliferation was not even discussed in either the 1984 or 1988 presidential debates, yet this issue is one which contains both political advantage and political responsibility.

Ross Perot's participation offers another opportunity to shift support, but Mr. Bush will have to take some risks. Mr. Perot has been the Jesse Jackson of the campaign, and will likely be the Jesse Jackson of the debates: less prepared and less conventional than his opponents, but treated with kid gloves lest his supporters feel insulted and vote to punish whichever candidate harshly criticizes their man.

If the analogy to Mr. Jackson is accurate, such debate timorousness may be the wrong strategy. In prior campaigns, pandering to Mr. Jackson provided few dividends; in fact, it made Mr. Mondale and Mr. Dukakis look like wimps. Mr. Clinton's measured toughness with Mr. Jackson to date, on the other hand, has won him respect among large numbers of Reagan Democrats.

Mr. Bush must take Mr. Perot on, not personally but by criticizing and co-opting his positions firmly and self-assuredly. This may not only win over some Perot supporters, but also create the impression that Mr. Clinton is afraid to challenge Mr. Perot and is resting on his comfortable lead in the polls.

If the election is Mr. Clinton's to lose, then so are the presidential debates with their limited potential for election turnabout. With Mr. Clinton's support stable but not deep, some long-shot opportunities do exist for a debate/election upset by President Bush. It will require, however, well-chosen risks and good intuition, qualities not so far evident in a Mr. Bush who persists in self-defeating personal attacks and missed opportunities.

Richard Vatz is professor of rhetoric and communication at Towson State University. Lee Weinberg is associate professor in the Graduate School of Public and International Affairs at the University of Pittsburgh.

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