When I hear your new ideas, I’m reminded of that ad, “Where’s the beef”
– Walter Mondale, Democratic presidential primary debate, March 11, 1984
In American politics, the month of October brings with it a palpable excitement. The election is just around the corner. And the Super Bowl of American Democracy – the presidential debates – are about to begin. Cue the dramatic music.
On October 3, President Barack Obama and Governor Mitt Romney will square off in the first of three televised presidential debates (see the full debate schedule below). Placing aside recent polling data and campaign events since their formal nomination, the two candidates will appear together before the American public for the first time, and offer their competing visions for America. Obama, burdened with a sluggish economy, must convince the public that he can restore the economy to full health, something he could not do in his first term. Romney, burdened with the appearance that he is not prepared for the presidency, must convince the public that America cannot afford four more years of an Obama Administration, and that he is a credible alternative.
In 2008, the Pew Research Center found that 41 percent of Americans reported watching all of the debates, and that 80 percent of Americans tuned in to “at least some portion” of them. Additionally, Pew reported that 67 percent of those who voted in 2008 said that the debates between barack Obama and John McCain were “very helpful” or “somewhat helpful” in deciding which candidate to vote for. But do the presidential debates really matter?
It is a common presumption (at least within the media) that the answer to this question is “yes.” Indeed, the media has been hyping the October 3 debate as a potential “game changer” in which either candidate can secure victory with a strong performance or send their campaign into an irrevocable tailspin. And across the Internet, potential voters are bombarded with headlines that reflect this conviction: “High debate stakes: Romney looks to gain momentum”; “Can the debates turn around Romney’s fortunes?”; “As race stands, Obama within reach of second term.”
But while the news media anticipate televised presidential debates as national events of great importance, it is increasingly clear that they have little meaningful impact on the structure of presidential races. In 2008, for example, Gallup reported that its “election polling trends since the advent of televised presidential debates . . . reveal few instances in which the debates may have had a substantive impact on election outcomes.”
Gallup’s data indicates that the debates have the potential to produce race-altering movements in voter preferences in highly competitive election years (e.g., 1960 and 2000). However, the debates are “less likely to be catalyst events” when one candidate is a strong front-runner (e.g., 1984, 1988 and 1996). This conclusion is supported by the work of numerous political scientists, including, for example, James Stimson. In a careful study, Stimson noted that there has been little evidence of game changers in the presidential campaigns between 1960 and 2000 and that, more importantly, “[t]here is no case where we can trace a substantial shift to the debates.”
There might be reason to believe that this election will be different. James Fallows, a political journalist and former Democratic speechwriter, notes that while the “past two cycles of general-election debates have been anticlimactic . . . this year’s exchanges have the potential to be different, and more dramatic.” The key word here, however, is potential.
Given the Romney campaign stumbles, commentators have inevitably come to the conclusion that “Mitt Romney’s path to victory is narrowing.” Romney has thus been pressured to “shake up the race fast with an aggressive, confident [debate] performance.” It is increasingly apparent, however, that the 2012 presidential race is one featuring a strong front-runner. President Obama has opened up a substantial lead over Romney in many of the nine states where the campaigns are competing the hardest: Colorado, Florida, Iowa, New Hampshire, Nevada, North Carolina, Ohio, Pennsylvania and Virginia. Thus, while the debates present Mitt Romney with an opportunity to capitalize on a host of unknowns, both foreign and domestic, it is clear that his challenge is formidible. And with early or absentee voting under way in more than half of the states (see NPR’s guide to early and absentee voting), the impression that Romney makes on October 3 could very well be his last.
2012 Presidential Debate Schedule
Each debate will be broadcast live on C-SPAN, ABC, CBS, FOX and NBC, as well as all cable news channels including CNN, Fox News and MSNBC.
- October 3, 2012: Domestic Policy. Air Time: 9:00-10:30 p.m. Eastern Time. Location: University of Denver in Denver, Colorado. Participants: President Barack Obama and Governor Mitt Romney. Moderator: Jim Lehrer (Host of NewsHour on PBS).
- October 11, 2012: Foreign and Domestic Policy [Vice Presidential Debate]. Air Time: 9:00-10:30 p.m. Eastern Time. Location: Centre College in Danville, Kentucky. Participants: Vice President Joe Biden and Congressman Paul Ryan. Moderator: Martha Raddatz (ABC News Chief Foreign Correspondent).
- October 16, 2012: Foreign and Domestic Policy [Town Hall Format]. Air Time: 9:00-10:30 p.m. Eastern Time. Location: Hofstra Unifersity in Hempstead, New York. Participants: President Barack Obama and Governor Mitt Romney. Moderator: Candy Crowley (CNN Chief Political Correspondent).
- October 22, 2012: Foreign Policy. Air Time: 9:00-10:30 p.m. Eastern Time. Location: Lynn University in Boca Raton, Florida. Participants: President Barack Obama and Governor Mitt Romney. Moderator: Bob Schieffer (Host of Face the Nation on CBS).