October 4, 2012

Value of debates: Memorable moments, no real impact

Despite the media hype, election and poll analysis indicates presidential debates don't mean much.

By MIKE DORNING Bloomberg News

Presidential debates have produced some of the most memorable moments of modern campaigns: A tanned and relaxed John Kennedy meeting a sweaty and pasty Richard Nixon in 1960. Gerald Ford denying Soviet domination of Eastern Europe in 1976. Al Gore sighing and rolling his eyes in 2000.

Richard Nixon, John F. Kennedy
click image to enlarge

The 1960 Nixon-Kennedy debate, an event that marked the advent of the television age in politics, appeared not to influence the election outcome, with Kennedy’s poll average at 50.5 before the first debate and 50.6 after the last one.

The Associated Press

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WASHINGTON — A poll of three swing states released Wednesday shows Republican challenger Mitt Romney pulling closer to President Obama in Florida and Virginia while continuing to trail in Ohio.

The NBC News/Wall Street Journal/Marist College survey of likely voters taken Sept. 30-Oct. 1 put Obama narrowly ahead in Florida, 47 percent to 46 percent, and in Virginia, 48 percent to 46 percent. Obama led by five points in both states in the Sept. 9-11 NBC/Journal/Marist poll.

In Ohio, without which a Republican candidate has never won the White House, Obama led, 51 percent to 43 percent. He was ahead, 50 percent to 43 percent, in last month’s poll.

The results in Florida and Virginia show Romney closing the gap in two states crucial to his White House hopes as the two presidential candidates prepared for their first of three debates Wednesday night.

Romney also reduced Obama’s lead in a national NBC/Journal poll released Tuesday. The president led Romney, 49 percent to 46 percent, among likely voters, down from 50 percent to 45 percent in a comparable survey two weeks earlier. Obama’s margin increased to five points over Romney — 48 percent to 43 percent — when third-party candidates were included.

– Bloomberg News

For all the lore and media buildup, the events haven't had much impact on election outcomes.

"Where you started the debate season is pretty much where you end the debate season," said Christopher Wlezien, a political science professor at Temple University and co-author of the book "The Timeline of Presidential Elections."

No candidate who was leading in the polls six weeks before the election has lost the popular vote since Thomas Dewey in 1948, according to Wlezien and Robert Erikson, a political science professor at Columbia University. They studied polling data going back to 1952 and computed a running average "poll of polls" for each presidential election.

Gore, who had a slight lead over George W. Bush six weeks before the 2000 election, won a majority of votes cast in November even though he lost the Electoral College tally that determines the presidency. The 1980 winner, Ronald Reagan, was tied six weeks before the election and pulled ahead of President Jimmy Carter before their only debate.

President Barack Obama, who will debate Republican Mitt Romney Wednesday night in Denver, was ahead 49 percent to 43 percent among likely voters in a Bloomberg National Poll conducted Sept. 21-24.

Wlezien and Erikson found only one campaign with a big movement in opinion polls from the start to finish of the debate series - and then it was the candidate widely judged to have lost the debates who gained in the polls.

Ford, notwithstanding his gaffe on Eastern Europe, climbed 10 percentage points, narrowing the margin while still losing to Carter.

In 1968, when there were no presidential debates, Nixon's 15-percentage-point Gallup Poll lead in late September dwindled to a one-point win over Democrat Hubert Humphrey on Election Day.

What influence debates have had on public opinion historically has stemmed from matters of style rather than substance. A glance at a watch or a distant reaction to an emotionally charged question have been more consequential than clashes over war, taxes or economic policy.

A 2008 Gallup review of polling data surrounding presidential debates concluded the events are "rarely game- changers" yet may have made a difference in 1960 and 2000, both among the closest presidential contests in U.S. history.

James Stimson, author of "Tides of Consent: How Public Opinion Shapes American Politics," said it's not even clear that the debates were decisive in 1960, though Kennedy's cool, crisp on-air performance is often cited as pivotal to a campaign that marked the advent of the television age in politics.

"It's such a charming story," said Stimson, a political science professor at the University of North Carolina. "You get the impression Kennedy was on the verge of losing when he debated Nixon. Instead, Kennedy was ahead going in."

Kennedy's average in the polls was 50.5 percent one week before the first debate. It was 50.6 percent one week after the last one, according to Wlezien and Erikson. They analyzed polling based on each candidate's share of the two-party vote, excluding independent and third-party candidates.

In 2000, an election decided by a few thousand votes in Florida, the debates "may have changed the outcome," said Tad Devine, who was an adviser to Gore, the Democratic candidate.

In the days after the first debate, press coverage focused on Gore's audible sighs and interruptions. Marked shifts in his demeanor during each of the next two debates and a faulty makeup job that gave him an unnatural hue in one of them renewed questions in the media about the authenticity of his public persona.

(Continued on page 2)

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