Mitt Romney won the debate. The former Massachusetts governor, in his first encounter with President Obama, won on points. He won on demeanor. He won on the crispness of his arguments. He simply won, hands down. At the University of Denver last night, he appeared zestful in the fray, whereas the president looked as if he would rather be back in the White House living quarters, watching old movies.
But what does it mean in terms of the presidential contest now reaching its period of greatest intensity? Almost nothing. That’s because America’s presidential politics hinge not on superficialities such as debating points or how the candidates comb their hair but rather on the collective electorate’s assessment of incumbent performance. Thus, presidential debates influence the national decision process only in the narrow sense that they may help some voters decide how they feel about the job performed by the incumbent. The question that preoccupies the electorate, as opposed to the media, is whether the incumbent or incumbent party is eligible for rehire based on his or its stewardship of the nation over the previous four years.
This is important to keep in mind because the political media attribute almost total impact to not just the debates as a whole but to specific moments of drama or zing or to matters of appearance. But did Richard Nixon’s sweaty upper lip in his first 1960 debate with John Kennedy seal his fate as a loser that year? No. Did Michael Dukakis lose to George H. W. Bush in 1988 because he didn’t show outrage at Bernard Shaw’s outrageous hypothetical question involving the rape of Dukakis’s wife? No. Did Ronald Reagan win in 1980 because he uttered his two famous debate lines—“There you go again”; and, “Ask yourself: Are you better off than you were four years ago?” No.
The 1960 contest was a very close call, with the outcome attributable to flaws in incumbent Dwight Eisenhower’s second-term performance. The first George Bush won in 1988 on the strength of Reagan’s second term. And Reagan beat Jimmy Carter in 1980 because Carter had failed as president. In none of these instances did the debates have any appreciable impact on the outcome.
The media’s obsession with debates reaches its most frivolous regarding Reagan’s famous 1984 line during his debate with challenger Walter Mondale, in which the president said he wouldn’t make age an issue by exploiting his opponent’s youth and inexperience. On MSNBC’s Morning Joe the other day, one pundit actually suggested that Mondale knew at that moment that he would lose and that Mondale was right. But wait a minute. Reagan carried forty-nine states that year and garnered nearly 60 percent of the popular vote. Does anyone think that that single debating point zoomed him to that vote total from, say, 49 percent of the vote? No, Reagan won in a landslide because he turned around an economy in crisis and restored the country’s national confidence. Mondale never had a chance, and nothing that happened in the debates or anywhere else was going to change that.
In fact, a careful study of the two Reagan-Mondale debates suggests strongly that Reagan lost both of them. It was widely perceived at the time that Mondale bested the president in the first debate, and that perception unleashed a torrent of stories raising questions about whether the incumbent’s age was catching up with him. Thus, Reagan’s charming zinger in the second debate was heralded as a deft maneuver putting a stop to any speculation about his age.
But go back and watch that second debate. Reagan was halting and less than steady throughout, particularly in his closing remarks. It was excruciating, but the media focused only on that one moment of rhetorical triumph. If voters had made their decisions based on overall debate performance, as pundits seem to suggest that they do, Reagan would have lost the election hands down.