DENVER (CBS4) – Both President Barack Obama and Mitt Romney prepared for Wednesday’s debate for months with coaches and mock sparring partners. It’s no wonder because millions upon millions of people watched. In some past debates, winning came down to a single exchange — one zinger or one blunder.
From Ronald Reagan’s unforgettable “There you go again” to Gerald Ford’s unforgivable “There is no Soviet domination of Eastern Europe,” televised debates have always been more about put-downs and slip-ups than policy and priorities.
“It was Thomas Jefferson who said free argument and debate are the natural weapons of truth,” Political Science Professor Norm Profizer said. “Well the way presidential debates have worked, that’s not quite the case.”
Profizer said while surveys show debates play a role in how people vote, for most they simply reaffirm an opinion and they don’t change it.
“You actually hear and see what you want to see and hear,” Profizer said.
That is why both campaigns will spin the debate as win for their candidate. Yet, there are always exceptions. Take the first debate in 1960 between Richard Nixon and John F. Kennedy.
“People who watched the debate thought John Kennedy won the debate. People who listened to it on the radio thought Nixon,” Profizer said.
The reason was Kennedy looked better because people thought Nixon perspired too much.
Debates are as much about projecting an image as they are about getting out a message.
“The first rule of these things, is what doctors say. First, do no harm, and that’s the rule for politicians in a debate — do no harm to yourself.”
Whether that’s bad make-up or a blunder, after that it’s about delivery of the message.
Political theater aside, presidential debates do have value. It’s the one opportunity voters have to see the candidates go toe-to-toe without a media filter — the clarity of their vision and courage of their conviction, how they think on their feet and respond under pressure.
What it’s all about more than anything else, minus blunders and zingers, is it’s who do voters trust and feel most comfortable with as a leader who can affect your life.