Do Presidential Debates Matter?

By Faith and Freedom Staff

With debate season kicking off this week and continuing through October, the history and impact of this staple of American politics will be argued as hotly as who won or lost. Many will ask, as they have this week, if the debates still serve any real purpose or if we should just do away with them or change the format substantially.

There was a time in American history when debates mattered a great deal. The Lincoln-Douglas Debates set the stage for this long-lasting tradition of the Republic.  While not presidential, they were very much about national politics. Held in 1858, just three years before the Civil War began, slavery became a focus of the debates as Senator Stephen Douglas and Abraham Lincoln battled for an Illinois senate seat.

Douglas favored giving states the right to decide the slavery question on their own, while Lincoln opposed the idea. Douglas repeatedly accused Lincoln of being an abolitionist and Lincoln claimed that he was not such. In his own defense, Lincoln infamously asserted, “I am not, nor ever have been in favor of bringing about in any way, the social and political equality of the white and black races…”[i]

Weighty matters, indeed.

The debates drew massive crowds, even by today’s standards. The first was held in Ottawa, Illinois and drew ten thousand people. The second debate in Freeport attracted fifteen thousand onlookers. Special train service carried many citizens to the debates while others came by wagon, buggy and on foot. In his volume on Lincoln published in 1955, author Benjamin Thomas noted there were “Fireworks, rockets, and cannon[s] and that “Bands, military companies, and cavalcades of horsemen headed long processions escorting the speakers to the stand.”[ii]

The Modern Era

From the Lincoln Douglas debates onward, until the middle of the twentieth century, American political campaigns and the debate model operated on the same fundamental principles.  The biggest change came in the 1960’s with the famous Nixon-Kennedy debates on national television.  Most political historians recognize the first of those debates as having launched a new era in American politics—a period when how one appears on television matters as much as any substantive policy issue. 

The important lesson learned from that first Nixon-Kennedy debate was that visuals matter as much as verbal communication. Nixon, looking pale and sweating, cut a poor figure next to the better looking, tan (and dry) Kennedy. In voter surveys, a majority of those who listened to the debate on radio believed Nixon won the debate while those who watched on television claimed that Kennedy won. 

Subsequent presidential debates consistently reinforced the idea that non-verbal communication is an important factor in televised debates. A frown or a headshake can speak volumes. Gaffes such as the “Al Gore sigh” in the debate with George W. Bush in 2000 proved the point, as did “the glance” when George H.W. Bush briefly checked his watch during the 1992 debate against Clinton.  For Gore and Bush, these moments were magnified because they fed pre-existing media narratives: Gore was “arrogant” and Bush was a “silk-stocking” Republican.

There have been countless other moments to remember.  Ronald Reagan, former professional actor, may have worked the debates better than anyone in the modern era. With questions and comments such as “Are you better off today than you were four years ago?”, “I’m paying for this microphone!”; and perhaps the most powerful velvet fisted punch of all time, “I will not make age an issue of this campaign. I am not going to exploit, for political purposes, my opponent’s youth and inexperience

Lloyd Benson has gone down in history with his “I knew Jack Kennedy” dig at Dan Quayle. And scholars still talk about Mike Dukakis’ failure to show the least bit of emotion when asked what he would do if his wife were raped and murdered.

Such historic moments keep debate enthusiasts and political historians salivating for more.

Changing Debate Structure and Forum(s)

Nowadays, presidential debate prep typically starts 2-3 months in advance. Campaign teams carefully consider what questions will be asked and what responses would be appropriate. Closer to debate day, preparation may evolve into conference room meetings where staff members and consultants pepper candidates with questions.  In some cases, candidates may attempt to recreate the set and run through the entire debate for 60-90 minutes. Dick Cheney insisted on mock debates at same time of day the debate was scheduled to take place. 

Strategically speaking, the biggest question for candidates is what kind of headline they’re seeking to generate.  This is often related to how they are doing in the polls.  Do they want to mix it up with the other candidate(s) and make some news, or is it better to “speak directly to the American people?” The former is for the candidate who is behind and looking to gain ground and the latter is usually reserved for the candidate well ahead in the polls.

In this manner, debates evolved into mostly scripted affairs. Then along came the Internet, Twitter, and Donald Trump.

Beginning with the digital revolution in the late nineties, political consultants’ power over message management began to unravel. Discipline became far more difficult to maintain in a 24-hour news cycle filled with endless cable channels and the growing popularity of the Internet. Top down communication directed “at” voters gave way to bottom-up conversations “with” voters.

Today, candidates and consultants don’t have multiple days to polish messaging.  Issues change from one day to the next.  President Trump is the first candidate to fully understand this phenomenon. His use of Twitter and Facebook demonstrate the fundamental principle that the American political debate is no longer limited to television and newspapers.

Despite all these changes, televised presidential debates do still matter, just not in the way they used to.  Nowadays, the framing and re-framing of debates on cable news and social media matters as much as a candidate’s actual debate performance—a fact that became abundantly evident after this week’s debate.

So, pop some popcorn and enjoy debate season…and the debate after the debate season…and the debate about whether debates matter season. The next presidential debates will be held on October 15th in Miami and the October 22nd in Nashville.

[i] Benjamin P. Thomas, Abraham Lincoln, (New York: Barnes & Noble/Knopf, 1952), p. 185.

[ii] Ibid.

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