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This Fall's Debates: What's New and What's Not

By Scott Conroy - July 27, 2012

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“We’re revealing that in advance, so the candidates know they’re going to have to be prepared to do 15 minutes of heavy discussion on a certain topic with the moderator,” he said. “In many ways, it helps the candidates. They’re not going to be asked who the president of Kyrgyzstan is or whether they wear [Jockey underwear].”

The four debate moderators will be chosen from a small pool of Washington journalists who fit the dual requirement of being comfortable with the technical idiosyncrasies of live television, in addition to having achieved a level of stature in the field commensurate with being handed such a prestigious and consequential role.

The CPD aims for a diverse quartet of moderators, all of whom will presumably be agreeable to both sides, as the commission says that neither campaign will be consulted during the selection process.

One formatting clause that may spark some negotiation between the commission and the two campaigns is the CPD’s “recommendation” that the candidates be seated at a table with a moderator, rather than stand behind podiums.

Fahrenkopf maintains that the 2000 vice-presidential debate between Dick Cheney and Joe Lieberman, in which the candidates were seated, demonstrated the improved nature and tenor of the exchanges when podiums aren’t involved.

The question of how much the debates really matter in determining the election winner is the subject of a long-running debate of its own.

John F. Kennedy, Ronald Reagan, Bill Clinton, and Obama each appeared to benefit from their debate performances on their road to the White House, but Alan Schroeder -- a professor of journalism at Northeastern University and the author of the 2008 book “Presidential Debates: 50 Years of High-Risk TV” -- noted that the general election debates typically have the highest impact on a small pool of low-information voters.

“What the academic research shows is that the debates tend to reinforce perceptions that already exist, rather than change votes,” he said.

Unlike in past presidential elections, when one candidate has gone into the fall face-offs with a perceived advantage, Obama and Romney both are widely regarded as proficient debaters.

But while Schroeder said that each candidate was “very capable” and “technically competent” on a debate stage, he also said that neither one benefits from an intangible quality that has paid off in spades for past candidates.

“What’s missing from both of their performances is I don’t think either of them particularly enjoys the experience of debating, and I think the very best debaters have to like it,” Schroeder said. “Bill Clinton is the gold standard here. He wasn’t just technically good at it. He liked doing it.”

One potential advantage for Romney is that he will be well-practiced, having participated in over 20 debates against his fellow Republican candidates during the 2012 primary season.

It will have been four years, on the other hand, since Obama squared off in his three debates against John McCain, though Romney hasn’t taken part in a one-on-one format since his 2002 gubernatorial campaign. 

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Scott Conroy is a national political reporter for RealClearPolitics. He can be reached at sconroy@realclearpolitics.com. Follow him on Twitter @RealClearScott.

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