What to Watch for at the Debates

What to Watch for at the Debates

By Steven Stark - September 25, 2008

In most presidential elections, the importance of the debates is over-rated. Most voters end up deciding that the winner of the debates is the candidate who they were already leaning toward. In fact, there have been only two campaigns -- 1960 (Kennedy vs. Nixon) and 1980 (Carter vs. Reagan) -- where the debates arguably changed enough minds to affect the outcome.

This year, however, the debates will likely have a profound impact on the election. Part of that is because this race is so close. But it's mostly because -- for the first time since 1952 -- neither presidential candidate has any formal connection to an incumbent or a former administration. As a result, both Barack Obama and John McCain are still relatively unknown, and the impression they make in their three widely watched joint appearances will probably prove decisive.

Who will benefit the most from the debates? Apply these rules and you'll know.

1) Debates are about memorable lines and key moments

What voters tend to recall are knockout lines and exchanges. This is especially true in that the media replays these moments again and again, reinforcing their importance.

In 1980, the headline replay was Ronald Reagan's "There you go again," and later, "Are you better off than you were four years ago?" (which came in his closing summary, so voters could really remember it). In 1988, it was Lloyd Bentsen's riposte to Dan Quayle, "You're no Jack Kennedy." Note that, in each case, the comment was short (the better to be rebroadcast on the news) and that two of these three comments were directed at the other candidate (rather than the audience), thereby highlighting the drama.

2) Gaffes take center stage

The annals of presidential debates are filled with far more instances of candidates who hurt themselves with their performances than help themselves. This helps explain why these joint appearances seldom end up moving many voters: the candidates are so afraid of making a mistake that they don't take many chances, either.

What defines a debate gaffe? They're not really factual mistakes, but instances when candidates reinforce the public's worst fears about them. Gerald Ford's description of Poland as "free" in 1976 confirmed for many that he might not be intellectually up to the presidency, just as Michael Dukakis's professorial defense of his opposition to the death penalty (in answer to a question of what he'd do if his wife were raped or murdered) indicated to many that he was a member of the elite and out-of-touch with the common voter.

(Similarly, while not "gaffes" in the conventional sense, Quayle's "lost in the headlights" performance in 1988 reinforced the sentiment that he wasn't prepared for national office, just as Reagan's lackluster performance in the first debate in 1984 raised suspicions he might be too old. Of course, Quayle got away with his awful performance because veeps don't matter much, and Reagan had another debate to undo the damage -- and did.)

So, in this election, what could constitute a gaffe differs for each candidate, depending on the circumstances. For McCain, anything in his performance that indicates he's too old, he's unprepared to deal with the economy, or he's a traditional Republican could end up being devastating for him. And for Obama, anything that smacks of his being too imperious, inexperienced, pliable, or, in truth, too liberal, could spell trouble. Sarah Palin's Achilles-heel million-dollar question is the same as Quayle and Ford's before her: does she display enough acumen for the job? For Joe Biden, the problem will be the one he always has: will he put his foot in his mouth and dominate post-debate discussion that way?

3) Visuals can steal the show

A debate is first and foremost a television show; how one acts is frequently as important as what one says. ("Action is character," wrote F. Scott Fitzgerald.) Although the visual advantage JFK had over a poorly made-up Richard Nixon has been exaggerated, the truth is that Kennedy always looked marvelous on TV, and anyone appearing in a studio with him instantly paled by comparison. (Ditto for Reagan.)

In the past, visuals have played out in different ways. Al Gore couldn't help sighing during George W. Bush's turns in the first debate in 2000, leaving the impression among some that he was a bit of a boor. When George H.W. Bush looked at his watch during the town-hall debate of 1992, it sent a clear message about what he thought of having to deal with the public -- and it wasn't a good one.

In this year's debates, the public will assess the age issue visually: does Obama appear too young (or inexperienced) or McCain too old? And, as in other years, voters will try to come to terms with what it would be like to have this leader as a constant TV companion for four years.

Voters have doubts as to whether Obama has the experience and background to be president, and whether the change he offers is too radical. With McCain, the doubts are about whether he's over the hill and offers enough change. The candidate who uses these appearances to deal with the misgivings voters have about his candidacy is likely to emerge as the winner in November.

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