The presidential debates: “Full of sound and fury signifying nothing”?

Presidential Debate Weigh In

Will the presidential debates, to quote Shakespeare, be “full of sound and fury signifying nothing”?

That’s not a bad way to describe these quadrennial slugfests, the first of which is tonight and ends with the last of three debates on Oct. 22.

Every four years, the news media hypes the debates far beyond their historical importance.

If you watched the morning news shows for the past few days, you’d think that the contest between President Obama and Mitt Romney will be decided by Obama’s demeanor under attack (like Gore, will he sigh?) or the quality of Romney’s much-anticipated zingers.

Romney, if you listen to the pundits, has a real chance to finally speak to undecided voters and make, at long last, a persuasive and passionate case for his candidacy.

That, of course, plays into the self-serving news media hype that portrays the debates as the greatest moments in American democracy, when the sound bites vanish, attack ads fall silent and the candidates, like gladiators, are finally alone in the arena. In these mythic contests, the candidates, under the intense glares of the klieg lights, must finally confront each other and talk honestly to the American people.

So, in the breathless news narrative, two men enter the arena. Only one will emerge victorious; the other will stagger forth, bloodied and beaten.

The truth, however, is very different.

Instead of a bloody clash, tonight’s event is actually much like a joint musical concert featuring Al Green and Tony Bennett.

If Al Green is your favorite recording artist, you’re going to pay good money to hear him sing. He’s the reason you cough up the ticket price. Sure, you’ll endure Tony Bennett, but you’re not going to go straight home afterwards and toss out your Al Green CDs and log on to Amazon to start loading up on Tony Bennett’s music.

And the same applies to all the Tony Bennett fans. They will endure Al Green’s music, but he’s just not their cup of tea.

And what about all those who either don’t like Tony Bennett or Al Green – or who don’t enjoy music at all?

Well, they’ll be at home watching Honey Boo Boo.

That, folks, is your presidential debates.

If you are an Obama supporter, you’ll watch, and unless Obama has a complete meltdown, you’ll turn off the TV 90 minutes later, satisfied with your decision. Hearing Romney attack Obama won’t prompt you to rush out to the garage and remove your Obama bumper sticker. And the same applies to the Romney supporters. They’ll stick with Romney.

But, you say, what about all those undecided voters? Won’t they be watching the debates to help them finally make up their minds? Aren’t they the real target audience tonight?

Breaking news: history and common sense tells us that most truly undecided voters don’t watch the debates. They are like that small group of people who don’t like music. And just like those music haters who don’t buy CDs and don’t attend concerts, undecided voters are largely undecided because they don’t pay attention to politics.

Perhaps the best explanation ever on presidential debates is found in a marvelous little book by political scientist James A. Stimson, Tides of Consent: How Public Opinion Shapes American Politics. It may be the most readable and accessible scholarly book I’ve ever read.

Senator John F. Kennedy and Vice President Ric...
Senator John F. Kennedy and Vice President Richard M. Nixon during the first televised U.S. presidential debate in 1960. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

First, Stimson cites research by another scholar, Thomas Holbrook, that proves that the debates “occur so late in the process that most voters have already decided on their candidates.” That’s the case today. According to Gallup, only six percent of voters remain undecided.

He also cites historical evidence, based on the polls, which show that debates don’t change the poll numbers much at all. “The period in which the debates are going on,” Stimson observes, “is actually the flattest in the entire year, the time when change is least apparent.”

But what about those undecideds, or late deciders. Again, Stimson:

Far from the editorial page heroes who calmly absorb facts and put off decision until all the facts are in, real late deciders are instead people so totally uninvolved in politics, so little interested, so little informed, that they are barely aware that a presidential election is occurring. It is highly improbable that they will tune in to the candidates, when most citizens with greater interest in politics do not.

So, the debates occur so late in the process that most voters have already decided, and the audience they attract will consist in the main of loyalists to each side. That doesn’t leave much room for influence.

Stimson wrote his book after the 2000 race, but before the 2004 and 2008 elections. Based on several decades of data, however, he concludes, “[If the debates] matter at all, their influence is vastly smaller than, say, the conventions.”

It’s not that the debates don’t matter and that they don’t have the potential to nudge the outcome in one direction in a very close race. They matter, just not as much as the media have led you to believe.

For example, consider the 2008 debates. Not counting the vice presidential contest, the three debates between Obama and John McCain attracted an average of 57.3 million viewers. On election day, however, 129.3 million voters went to the polls. The follow calculations are imperfect, I know, but one way of thinking about this is to say that, at most, only 44 percent of those viewers watched one or all of the debates. Eight-five million voters may not have watched at all.

Just who are those apathetic undecided voters that Stimson has in mind?

“Saturday Night Live” recently parodied them in a very funny spot, in which clueless voters ask questions like, “When is the election?” “What are the names of the two people running? And be specific,” and “Who is the president right now?”

Those images are, of course, gross distortions of the political awareness of most undecided voters. But there is also a bit of truth in this portrait, which is what makes it so funny. Most undecided voters know who the president is, but many of them just don’t care.

In the end, many of those people will vote. That much we know. But we also know they don’t watch the debates and because of that, the debates – absent a major gaffe or meltdown – just don’t change the trajectory of presidential elections.

1 thought on “The presidential debates: “Full of sound and fury signifying nothing”?

  1. Not sure if it is more comical or depressing.


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