Consider the 1976 debate, where incumbent President Gerald R. Ford supposedly lost the White House by claiming – in the midst of the cold war – that Poland was not dominated by the Soviet Union. The comment didn’t have any measurable effect on the electoral fortunes of Ford, who actually gained ground through most of the campaign. But research also demonstrated that people who watched the debates were better informed than people who didn’t.
Ditto for the 1988 face-off between George H.W. Bush and Michael Dukakis, who was asked by newsman Bernard Shaw if he would want his wife’s murderer put to death. A longtime opponent of capital punishment – and a man of consistent principle – Mr. Dukakis said no. Stunned journalists pronounced his political epitaph right after that.
Yet Dukakis was already sinking in the polls, and there’s no evidence that the debate did anything to submerge him further. It did enhance viewers’ ability to correctly answer questions about the two candidates’ political positions, on the death penalty and a wide range of other issues.
That’s been the pattern ever since. From George H.W. Bush checking his watch in his 1992 debate against Bill Clinton to Al Gore’s audible sighs when he faced Bush’s son eight years later, the pundocracy has played up each and every little gaffe as a potential game-changer. And then, like the Grinch who stole Election Day, it dourly reminds us that debates can’t really change the game.