Presidential debates – like tonight's between Mitt Romney and President Obama – are educational. The voters know it, and the statistics show it. But somebody forgot to tell our news organizations, which continue to dismiss the real importance of the debates.
In 1960, on the eve of the first televised Presidential debates in United States history, America’s leading newspaper launched a pre-emptive attack on them. Pitting Vice-President Richard Nixon against his telegenic opponent, John F. Kennedy, the debates would appeal to voters “who are influenced not so much by logic and reason as by emotional, illogical factors,” the New York Times warned. “The fear is that they will not discuss the issues as much as put on a show.”
Afterwards, most journalists sounded a similar theme: The debates were hollow and superficial, highlighting Kennedy’s youthful good looks – and Nixon’s sweaty jowls – instead of substantive political matters. But voters told a very different story. “I learned more about what each man stands for in an hour than I have in two months of reading the papers,” one Detroit viewer said.
In other words, presidential debates are educational. The voters know it, and the statistics show it. But somebody forgot to tell our news organizations, which continue to dismiss the real value of the debates.
Consider the buildup to tonight’s debate between President Obama and Mitt Romney. Even as the candidates tried to downplay expectations – a common campaign ploy – news reports did the same thing, reminding readers that debates rarely make a difference. Call it Hype against Hype: We’re all focused on this event, the story goes, but it doesn’t matter as much as we think.
That’s true, when it comes to wins and losses. Over and over again, studies have demonstrated that debates rarely affect popular opinion or voting behavior. But another robust body of research shows that debates do affect how much people know about the candidates – and, especially, about the issues – in a presidential campaign. And we shouldn’t forget that, either.