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