Is Mitt Romney a good debater? Is President Obama too “cool” to come across well in a debate? Will the primary debates help Romney? Does Obama has too much rust on his debating skill? We won’t know the answers until next Thursday, but today’s Washington Post has a great piece by Gwen Ifill about debates. Titled Gwen Ifill debunks five myths about presidential debates it is worth a read. Here are some highlights.
1. Voters use debates to decide.
For many voters, televised presidential debates serve to focus the mind. Seeing the men who would be president — yes, always men, so far — face off helps viewers finally choose a side.
But debates are only part of the American voter’s political diet. Like 30-second ads or stump speeches, they do as much to confirm impressions as to alter them. Think back to some memorable debate moments. Did George H.W. Bush glancing at his watch really persuade people to vote for Bill Clinton, or did it confirm the worst suspicions of those already leaning away from him? Did Lloyd Bentsen dismissing Dan Quayle as “no Jack Kennedy” lose the election for Michael Dukakis, or did it speak to an existing worry that Bush lacked the judgment to pick a No. 2 who could assume the presidency?
Minds were already made up. Gallup polls going back decades show precious little shift in established voter trends before and after debates. The major exception: 1960, when Gallup suggests that Richard Nixon’s lackluster, sweaty performance against John F. Kennedy moved a dead-heat campaign into the Democrats’ column — and that’s where it stayed.
2. Candidates approve the questions ahead of time.
As if. I get asked this question more than almost any other. (That, and “Is Sarah Palin really as pretty close up?”)
As a moderator, I took my cue from Jim Lehrer, who has moderated a dozen debates and has become the gold standard for the job. He advised me to keep my questions to myself. I went to such extremes to do so that in hindsight, it seems a bit paranoid. Not only did the candidates not see my questions before the debates, but precious few other two-legged mammals did.
3. The moderator should pick fights with the candidates.
When John Edwards slyly slipped a mention of Dick Cheney’s daughter’s sexual orientation into an answer in 2004, or when Palin blithely assured 67 million viewers that she did not think it was her responsibility to answer my questions, I let it pass.
Why, after all, are there two candidates on stage if not to debate each other? Cheney took Edwards to task. Biden let Palin slide.
4. He who zings, wins.
This one is almost too easy to debunk. Lloyd Bentsen. Lloyd Bentsen. Lloyd Bentsen.
In the 1988 vice presidential debate, Quayle was apparently miffed at being asked for the third time by the moderators whether he was prepared to be president. The 41-year-old candidate replied that he had as much experience in the Senate as John F. Kennedy had when he ran for president in 1960.
When Judy Woodruff turned to Bentsen for his reply, he pounced. “Senator, I served with Jack Kennedy,” he said sternly. “I knew Jack Kennedy. Jack Kennedy was a friend of mine. Senator, you’re no Jack Kennedy.” The audience hooted. The exchange went down in history.
5. Debates are the last best chance for candidates to define themselves.
No, “Saturday Night Live” is.