One of my all time favorite Daily Show segments comes from the 2004 presidential debates. Two of the show's correspondents dutifully report the spin from each camp after one of the debates between President George W. Bush and Sen. John Kerry.
"The Kerry campaign would like to remind America the senator was raised in France by a pack of homosexual billionaires," one correspondent reports, "and going into this had little chance against a plain-speaking, hardworking man of the people like George Bush. So for Kerry to be even close in this debate, they say, is a huge victory." His counterpart responds: "The Bush people would like to remind everyone their man held his own against what they call the smartest man in the history of the world—an amazing accomplishment for a president who, as the Bush team points out, is by some standardized test results technically retarded."
The skit perfectly satirizes that most meta of presidential debate exercises, the furious scramble to set expectations where each side attempts to portray its candidate as being hopelessly outmatched with the goal that the press will declare them the winner if they emerge from the debate without having drooled on themselves.
But while Team Obama has been faithfully acting out its role in these quadrennial Kabuki displays—"Mitt Romney I think has an advantage because he's been through 20 of these debates in the primaries over the last year," former White House press secretary Robert Gibbs said on Fox News Sunday recently—the Romney campaign is leavening their spin with an unusual tack of pumping up its importance. "Romney and his advisers, by contrast, are talking up the opportunity for the debates to shake up the race," the Wall Street Journal reported recently. One anonymous Romney aide told BuzzFeed last month, "We're going to be ready—very ready to face the president and we're going to win." New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie was typically blunt last Sunday: "We have a candidate who is going to do extraordinarily well on Wednesday night, the first time he has the opportunity to stand on the same stage as the President of the United States," he said, adding, "This whole race is going to turn upside down come Thursday morning."
In a sense the pump-up-the-debate tactic is understandable. As President Obama's post-convention bounce has proven durable and grousing increases about the his campaign's ineptitude, Romney has to point to something that could thwart an Obama re-election that a growing number of pundits sees as inevitable.
But by painting the debates as a kind of potential campaign-altering turning point, the Romney team is making a bad bet for a couple of reasons.
The biggest one is that debates rarely, if ever, change the course of presidential elections. Sure, there have been memorable or even dramatic moments—gaffes like Gerald Ford's famous liberation of Poland in 1976 ("There is no Soviet domination of Eastern Europe") and triumphant performances like Ronald Reagan's four years later ("Ask yourself: Are you better off than you were four years ago?"). But the truth of the matter, according to pollsters and political scientists who have studied the available data, is as George Washington University professor John Sides wrote recently in the Washington Monthly, "when it comes to shifting enough votes to decide the outcome of the election, presidential debates have rarely, if ever, mattered." Sides isn't alone in that conclusion. Nate Cohn, the New Republic's polling data guru, concluded last month that "in the past 50 years, they have not flipped the outcome of a single presidential election." And four years ago, Gallup reviewed its polling data from 1960 through 2004 and found that "polling trends since the advent of televised presidential debates a nearly a half-century ago reveal few instances in which the debates may have had a substantive impact on election outcomes."
Take Ford's famed Poland gaffe: Few people recall that Jimmy Carter's lead over the incumbent shrank over the course of the debate period. And while the single Reagan-Carter debate is recalled as the Gipper's watershed moment where voters finally broke for him, the fact is that Reagan had led in the average of tracking polls since the late spring.
Why don't debates have a greater impact? First, most voters tend to have made up their minds by the time debates occur, a phenomena likely to be exaggerated this year when there seem to be fewer undecided voters than usual.
Second, while the Romney campaign seems to bank on distinct moments in time to turn the race—first the vice presidential rollout was going to restart the campaign, then the Republican National Convention was going to spark a Romney surge—the fact is that elections are akin to aircraft carriers. They generally don't turn on a dime.
And this makes intuitive sense. After nearly four years, people have a pretty good sense of Barack Obama, and by now they've developed a notion of Mitt Romney. A debate moment might crystallize voters's views, but the events are not going to change the fundamentals of the race. People like Obama and think that he understands their concerns, and neither statement is true of Romney. And the debates are unlikely to change the fact that Romney is a tone-deaf candidate who has surrounded himself with an inept campaign team; or that he has been crippled by the need to straddle the sizable gap between his base's policy preferences and those of the mainstream voters on issues like Medicare and taxes.
None of this is to suggest that the debates will be devoid of drama. In fact, as I suggested a few weeks ago, there's good reason to think that the debates might provide memorable drama. Suppose the first debate or two pass without the momentum change for which the Romney campaign is hoping. What sort of Hail Mary nonsense might he trot out in his last electoral gasps?
- Read Ford O'Connell: Mitt Romney's Denver Debate Challenge
- Read Jamie Stiehm: Our Bland Presidential Debates
- Read Peter Roff: How the Media Will Cover Wednesday's Presidential Debate