Wednesday, September 12, 2012

Debates: Decisive v. Perfunctory

A truly crude publisher at a magazine I edited had a way of describing the pro forma. "It's like peeing in a blue serge suit. It gives you a nice, warm feeling, but nobody notices."

Modern debate-like objects may well fall in that class. They aren't the classic rhetorical contests from city-state times or even the pre-U.S. Civil War era. Back when free-form, one-to-one, open-ended agones let two contenders go at each other for as long as it took to exhaust their arguments.

Now the candidate fora and even the two-person so-called debates offer little opportunity for cogent policy or even brilliance. Seemingly dull-witted moderators and questioners serve up predictable topics to which candidates respond just as you'd expect. The only revelations or joys come when a candidate says something ignorant or stupid, the old gaffe track that the media live to report. These events are best suited for tweets.

How powerful?

Grousing about the inferior format aside, we have to wonder how meaningful these are and whether they truly influence elections.

The self-interested love to claim each election hinges on debates. This is particularly the case from the sponsors. Consider the October 1st spectacle between Sen. Scott Brown and challenger Elizabeth Warren.

It will be at UMASS Lowell, co-sponsored by the Boston Herald, and broadcast on cable TV at NECN and two AM radio stations, WBZ and WRKO. So, this allegedly crucial debate is likely to have a limited Boston-area audience for a statewide race.

The contest itself is unarguably a big deal. Dems need this seat to retain control of the U.S. Senate. Also, politically and emotionally there's the issue of whether to give the self-promoting wastrel a full term in a seat long held by an activist progressive. Whoever wins this go could well hold this seat for 12 or 24 or more years or more.

Writing of the self-interested, the promo for the debate, as reported in the Herald, includes hyperbole. WBZ's director of news and programming, Peter Casey, said, "(We are) looking forward to carrying this debate between Elizabeth Warren and Scott Brown, because it’s a critical Senate race for the WBZ audience and also for control of the Senate. Debates have become a major element and deciding factor in modern campaigns, and we are proud to take part in the process of letting the people choose."

Any Proof?

Those are oft-repeated assertions, but almost entirely without proof. Like with better-safe-than-sorry posits, most of us likely do not question its validity.

Nosing around in books and clicking around the net, there's little to support the power of the modern debate or forum. The best background and analysis I saw was at Franklin and Marshall College's Center for Politics & Public Affairs. Several of their professors, notably Dr. G. Terry Madonna and Dr. Michael Young, took the subject on from the Presidential level.

They include the conventional political wisdom — "Historically, debates played that role in 1960, 1976, and probably 1980." Certainly for the first, we love the idea that a sweating, sneaky looking Nixon lost the election debating the calm and candid Kennedy. Yet with only three likely examples, each of these is questionable.

Kennedy was already overtaking Nixon. Then in 1976, Watergate's effect may have doomed Ford. Debates of 1980, 1988 and 1992 sit in popular political mythology as being won and lost in debates, but each was likely decided by events and trends instead. As the profs conclude, "In fact, the evidence suggests that modern debates only rarely determine the outcome of elections."

There may be no relationship between debate performance and job performance. While the ideal leader should shine in both, how many pols can you think of that do?

Modern debate traits include:
  • Small attendance, even with media coverage and broadcast
  • "Viewers are voters with the keenest interest in politics or the party activists themselves."
  • Most attend or watch to reinforce their decision on a candidate
  • The undecided rarely watch or listen
  • Neighbors, coworkers and news snippets are more likely influences
Still, the idea of debates is attractive. Many of us love the concept that we are wise, rational and open-minded, that we come into October deserving to have candidates perform for us, sway us.

High and Low

It's likely too that debates are most powerful influences on the top and bottom. This time at the POTUS level, there's greater than normal interest. At the least, we all have serious stake the recovery and the extrication from war. So the top will get pretty good views, at least of the next day snippets if not the full debates.

Farther down, a few statewide races, like in Missouri and Massachusetts, are contentious enough and covered enough by fragmented broadcast and the asthenic print media. At least in the predigested, next-day bites, these debates will get some notice.

At the local level, the Tip O'Neill true platitude that all politics are local can work. Where there are rare open seats, officials accused of incompetence or corruption, and hot cultural issues at play, voters wants lots of mini-shows. Candidates have been going from one debate-like-object to another covering their neighborhoods and whole districts. Voters demand they perform.

So on all three levels, fora and debates can be big. It's just that in most cases, there's scant evidence they sway voters at all. For the vast majority of races, debates don't seem to do anything beyond feeling good.

As a lover of politics, I don't mind that we beat the drums for debates. Pretending each one is crucial to that contest or even to the whole of the democratic process is almost always an incredible exaggeration. I'll give that a pass, as it is for the good cause of getting for keeping voters engaged.

Brown/Warren note: There are actually four variations on broadcast debates. This may well lead to voter fatigue. In addition to 10/1, there is a 9/20, 10/1 and 10/30. Only one is West, in Springfield, one is only with Jon Keller, and one gets lots of Boston-area media, including sponsor the Globe.

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