Sorry for the length, but I didn't have time to write a short blog.

Monday, October 8, 2012

There you go again...

Debates have been going on forever and I don't just mean the ones for this election, which includes seventeen Republican Primary Debates, three Presidential and one Vice Presidential.  The most watched debate, by the way, was the Palin - Biden debate in 2008. It was perhaps had the highest number of views of any debate ever. Maybe the Ryan - Biden debate will beat that. After all, if fact checkers are accurate on Ryan's convention speech and Biden remains in form it could prove to be interesting because  Ryan is unfettered by the truth and Biden makes so many gaffs he is almost gaff proof. There is a point here, though, despite its numbers, the Palin-Biden debate had very little in the way of impact on the actual election. Regardless, virtually every aspect of the debates are now controlled by the campaigns from temperature to lighting to where they stand.  Some may have even noticed that Romney wore a red tie and Obama a blue one.  Every detail is considered.

That debates have little effect is the case most of the time.  Despite the Obama's poor performance and Romney's more aggressive style, the debate may give the challenger a bump, but it will probably not have that much impact.  A bump in the first debate for the challenger is a matter of fact.  It's known as the "incumbent's curse."   Since the first televised debate, most agree that only three or four depending on who you believe, might be game changers. How much is actually lore and myth or how much an action in a debate was the final brick in an already struggling campaign is probably more the case. Nevertheless, here they are.

The first "game changer" was the first televised  debate between Richard Nixon and John Kennedy.  There is actually a great deal of lore around this debate.  Nixon's looks are credited with the problem. He was sweaty and pale while Kennedy was tan and calm.  In actuality, Nixon had just been discharged from the hospital with a massive leg infection giving him a temperature of over a hundred and Kennedy had just returned from a vacation where he had been working on his tan.  Then through a rather clever ploy, Kennedy used Nixon's ego against him by convincing him that he was not going to wear makeup and then just before the debate having it applied in his dressing room by his campaign manager.  The results may be found here.*  In the second debate, legend has it that Nixon tried to take control of the studio thermostat turning up the air conditioning to very cold.  It took an argument with the stage manager and two of Nixon's aides, who were guarding the thermostat before it was finally set to a reasonable temperature.

There is also much discussion about this being more myth than game changer since the black and white debate really doesn't seem to show that much. Nixon was a master politician.  There is still much wonder that he made such a mistake.  He changed the course of election history as Vice President candidate for Eisenhower when he gave the famous "Checker's Speech"* which would eventually lead to the the whole thing about candidates releasing taxes in the late '60s, when George Romney released a dozen tax returns.

The next supposed game changer came in the election debate between Gerald Ford and Jimmy Carter.  Ford already had the problem of the Nixon pardon which some viewed as deal he had made with Nixon and others viewed as a necessary event so the country could move past Nixon and the Watergate scandal.  Regardless, Ford shot himself in the foot when he announced on national TV that "There is no Soviet domination of Eastern Europe."  His lack of foreign policy knowledge truly worried Americans who had already come to accept the Cold War as fact.   Admittedly it wasn't just this statement, there was the baggage of being Nixon's Vice President, thought of as a klutz, the pardon, and viewed as just not overly bright that played into the loss as well.  It was that the statement* played into all this image, especially the idea of not being smart enough to be POTUS.

Perhaps the most famous and true the game changer was the Ronald Reagan and Jimmy Carter debate.  Reagan slammed Carter with perhaps the two most famous lines in debate history, "There you go again..." and "Are you better off than you were four years ago." Carter was already struggling with the economy, something that came to a head under Reagan, and then the Iran hostage situation.  Most believe that Reagan was ready to use the "There you go again" line on anything about the economy that Carter offered.  The "better off" line became a Republican mantra but the fact is that it has never worked as it did here.* It was a true game changer.  Following the debate, Reagan's polling moved him into the lead finally winning 51% to Carter's 41%.

The next expanded the lead but wasn't a true game changer.  In the Bill Clinton and George HW Bush debate is famous for something that happened on a cut away.  Bush looked at his watch like he had something better to do.  Clinton had received a tremendous bounce from his convention of 57% to Bush's 32%.  Bush had managed to narrow the gap though within a couple of points, but following the watch incident, Clinton's lead expanded and he never looked back. The watch look* may have caused some effect, but  I would also point out that this was the year of Ross Perot who garnered a large number of conservative votes probably impacted Bush as much or more.

If you actually look at it, debates that change the elections are more the last straws and something of an anomaly.  There are some truly great moments and lines, but few changed the outcome of an election because for the most part many folks already know how they will vote and they will most likely stilt the debate to their own points of view.  Some might argue that other debates have had more impact, but there are also many where the first debates winner closed the gap following the debate and still lost.

*link to YouTube video showing the moments.  The Checkers speech is in two parts.