Media Shouldn't Dismiss Value of Romney, Obama Presidential Debate

Article excerpt

In 1960, on the eve of the first televised Presidential debates in United States history, Americas leading newspaper launched a pre- emptive attack on them. Pitting Vice-President Richard Nixon against his telegenic opponent, John F. Kennedy, the debates would appeal to voters who are influenced not so much by logic and reason as by emotional, illogical factors, the New York Times warned. The fear is that they will not discuss the issues as much as put on a show.

Afterwards, most journalists sounded a similar theme: The debates were hollow and superficial, highlighting Kennedys youthful good looks and Nixons sweaty jowls instead of substantive political matters. But voters told a very different story. I learned more about what each man stands for in an hour than I have in two months of reading the papers, one Detroit viewer said.

In other words, presidential debates are educational. The voters know it, and the statistics show it. But somebody forgot to tell our news organizations, which continue to dismiss the real value of the debates.

Consider the buildup to tonights debate between President Obama and Mitt Romney. Even as the candidates tried to downplay expectations a common campaign ploy news reports did the same thing, reminding readers that debates rarely make a difference. Call it Hype against Hype: Were all focused on this event, the story goes, but it doesnt matter as much as we think.

Thats true, when it comes to wins and losses. Over and over again, studies have demonstrated that debates rarely affect popular opinion or voting behavior. But another robust body of research shows that debates do affect how much people know about the candidates and, especially, about the issues in a presidential campaign. And we shouldnt forget that, either.

Consider the 1976 debate, where incumbent President Gerald R. Ford supposedly lost the White House by claiming in the midst of the cold war that Poland was not dominated by the Soviet Union. The comment didnt have any measurable effect on the electoral fortunes of Ford, who actually gained ground through most of the campaign. But research also demonstrated that people who watched the debates were better informed than people who didnt.

Ditto for the 1988 face-off between George H.W. Bush and Michael Dukakis, who was asked by newsman Bernard Shaw if he would want his wifes murderer put to death. A longtime opponent of capital punishment and a man of consistent principle Mr. Dukakis said no. Stunned journalists pronounced his political epitaph right after that.

Yet Dukakis was already sinking in the polls, and theres no evidence that the debate did anything to submerge him further. …