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What History Has Taught Us to Expect About the Palin/Biden Debate


Friday, Oct. 03, 2008

When you read this column, Governor Sarah Palin's vice presidential debate with Senator Joe Biden may already have occurred. As I write, it is scheduled for tonight.

Like the millions of Americans who will watch the debate, I am curious as to how Palin will do. Unfortunately, I will be in an airplane while Palin and Biden are debating. Yet from experience, I know that Palin's debate performance is extremely unlikely to make any real difference given the nature of presidential and vice presidential debates and their lack of electoral impact. They offer, at most, moments of political theater - as I will explain in this column.

The only thing that was on the line for Governor Palin in the debate, then, was her future on the national stage - a topic that I will address in a later column.

The Nature of Presidential and Vice Presidential Debates

Modern presidential debates began in 1960, when Vice President Richard Nixon and Senator John F. Kennedy engaged in the first three of them. This first series of debates forever changed the nature of presidential politics. Once governed by the written word and photographs, presidential campaigns increasingly became contests of moving images, which importantly changed the nature of the campaigning.

Indeed, television defeated the less-than-telegenic and humorless Nixon in 1960, for Kennedy was Hollywood-handsome and witty. In 1964, President Lyndon Johnson, who could never find a television camera that liked him, refused to debate his ruggedly handsome opponent Senator Barry Goldwater. When Nixon returned to the arena in 1968, he won the presidential election without debates; he did the same when reelected in 1972.

Not until 1976 would presidential candidates - Jimmy Carter and President Gerald Ford - again engage in televised debates. But ever since, these "debates" - perhaps better described as ninety-minute dueling press conferences - have become part and parcel of presidential campaigns.

Nixon's loss in 1960 - when radio listeners thought he had won - caused others to understand that images dominated, and that appearances overpower substance. One study of presidential debates summed it up as follows: "In almost every debate, impressions are privileged over substance. The character of our future leader is on display in the debates and, as research indicates, when candidates appear on television viewers tend to use the pictures to judge personality traits such as competence, integrity, leadership, and empathy." (The writer is Ian Watson and his work, entitled "Theatre and the Presidential Debates: the Role of Performance in Voter Choice," appeared in the New Theatre Quarterly.)

In short, these debates are political theater. But, notwithstanding all their hype, and the passing attention they garner during presidential campaigns, it is not clear they make any significant difference in the outcome of an election. Since Nixon, no one has lost a presidential bid because of the debates. Recently, too, George W. Bush, who many thought performed poorly in the debates in 2000 and 2004, still won both presidential elections.

The Votes of Presidential and Vice Presidential Debate Viewers Are Largely Unaffected By the Debates

The debates are the most-viewed aspect of presidential campaigns; they are the Super Bowl and World Series of presidential politics. They draw viewing audiences ranging between forty and seventy million Americans.

Based on studies of those who watched presidential debates in 2000 and 2004, it can be assumed that this year's hardcore and predominant audience will be similar -- people with strong partisan attachments and high levels of political interest. In short, it is the activists who make up the leading numbers of the audience, and they will watch all of the debates from start to finish. In 2000 and 2004, more Republicans than Democrats viewed the debates; in the first debate of 2008, more Democrats than Republicans were in the audience.

Political scientists have established (in repeated studies) that few of these hardcore political partisans change their minds based on the debates. To the contrary, regardless of their candidate's true performance, Republicans will believe McCain and Palin won their debates, while Democrats will believe that Obama and Biden prevailed. (See, for example, Jeffrey W. Jarman, "Political Affiliation and Presidential Debates," The American Behavioral Scientist.)

However, and importantly, it is not necessary for Americans to watch even an entire debate, and certainly not all three presidential debates, to be influenced by them. As Malcolm Gladwell established in Blink, it does not take long for us to assess if we think a man or woman is presidential or vice presidential timber. And if anyone thinks that they will be voting for either McCain/Palin or Obama/Biden based on their myriad policy positions, they are wrong. We vote with our hearts, not our heads.

The debates are important for undecided voters, who at this late stage of the campaign when the debates are taking place, are also often so-called "low information" voters - those who care little about the contest, but want some information to help them make up their minds. Polling on the first debate of 2008 indicates that Obama won the first debate against McCain, with some polls showing Obama impressed this undecided group in the first debate.

Ian Watson noted in his study (cited above) the widely-understood reality that political scientists find that "there is no firm evidence to suggest [presidential or vice presidential debates] influence the outcome of election." Nonetheless, political professionals understand their importance, particularly with undecided voters. One seasoned political consultant describes how "subtle cues of gesture, posture, syntax, and tone of voice account for as much as seventy-five per cent of a viewer's judgment about the electability of a candidate."

Thus, while the debates are not game-changing events, they reinforce the views of supporters (regardless of their candidates' performance) and can influence less-sophisticated voters.

Republicans Will Love Palin Regardless of Her Debate Performance

Because of the nature of presidential/vice presidential debates, where form trumps substance, and assuming that Palin continues to respond during the debate with the kind of upbeat jabber she gave CBS News anchor Katie Couric, or the gibberish she employed when running for governor - where a few salient facts accidentally slip in from time to time - as of this writing, I expect her to do just fine.

In fact, it will be inexplicable if she does not. A presidential debate is not a test. With her college degree in television journalism, work as a television sportscaster, and experience as practicing politician she certainly understands television, probably better than many candidates, and she has demonstrated that she can work a television audience to her favor. I have no doubt that Paris Hilton would have done as well, maybe better.

With respect to the debate, Palin is similar to an athlete who accidentally finds herself in the Olympics but is not really qualified to be there. While she can play the sport she is not a world-class talent, a fact she has clearly established with her conspicuous prior stumbling. Still, she has an appealing nature and personality, so she can gain the sympathy of the crowd, and her fans will love her merely for going through with the contest. Most Republicans do not care that she has no experience or true knowledge.

Strikingly, many social and religious conservatives who have watched or heard Palin's pre-debate interviews with Katie Couric, Charles Gibson, Sean Hannity and Hugh Hewitt have found nothing wrong with her answers. To the contrary, they think that commentators like George Will and CNN's Jack Cafferty are being snobs for putting her down, and claiming she is out of her league. Conservative operatives claim that she answers questions just as an average American might, which is why people like her. The fact that she could be a heartbeat away from the presidency (should the seventy-two-year- old John McCain, with his recurring melanomas, win) does not trouble them. One religious conservative asserted with a straight face, "God will take care of her, and our nation, if she suddenly were to become president."

In sum, as I write this column, prior to the debate, I am convinced that Palin will survive with, at a minimum, her base of support intact. But surviving this debate does not mean she is qualified to be the Vice President of the United States. To the contrary, her place on the ticket should scare the hell out of any sane American, and provide an overwhelming reason to vote against McCain in November, even if you like his positions.

John W. Dean, a FindLaw columnist, is a former counsel to the president.

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