Tonight sees the first of this year’s debates between Romney and Obama.
Before we get too excited, let us consider a few key facts:
1. Whoever’s winning the election will probably win the debate…
Debates usually reflect the existing state of the campaign rather than deciding it. President Obama is comfortably winning the election so can probably expect to win the debate.
There are exceptions to this rule however: if as in 1960 or 1976, the race is very close. Nixon’s shifty appearance and President Ford’s confusion over the USSR may have swung the race in both cases. In 2000 and 2004, Al Gore and John Kerry both easily beat Bush in the debates. Expectations were so low for Bush, however, that the debates felt like a victory for Bush who went on to win narrowly (in 2004 anyway). In 1988, Bush’s father managed to lose the first of two debates to Michael Dukakis but still won the election by a landslide.
But trust me usually the first place candidate usually wins the debate.
2. The Vice Presidential debates don’t matter
From the 1988 Dan Quayle/Lloyd Bentsen VP debate…
Quayle: I have far more experience than many others that sought the office of vice president of this country. I have as much experience in the Congress as Jack Kennedy did when he sought the presidency. I will be prepared to deal with the people in the Bush administration, if that unfortunate event would ever occur.
Judy Woodruff: Senator [Bentsen]?
Bentsen: Senator, I served with Jack Kennedy, I knew Jack Kennedy, Jack Kennedy was a friend of mine. Senator, you’re no Jack Kennedy. (Prolonged shouts and applause.) What has to be done in a situation like that is to call in the — Woodruff: (Admonishing applauders) Please, please, once again you are only taking time away from your own candidate.
Quayle: That was really uncalled for, Senator. (Shouts and applause.) Bentsen: You are the one that was making the comparison, Senator — and I’m one who knew him well. And frankly I think you are so far apart in the objectives you choose for your country that I did not think the comparison was well-taken.
Senator Lloyd Bentsen’s “no Jack Kennedy” humiliation of Senator Dan Quayle in 1988 is probably the finest moment in any national US presidential debate ever. But it didn’t help the Dukakis/Bentsen campaign which still went down to a hefty defeat.
3. There’s always the potential for a gaffe from either side.
Nixon’s anxious scowling at JFK during the 1960 debate. President George HW Bush glancing at his watch throughout his debate with Bill Clinton. Senator Bob Dole’s foolish labelling of both World Wars, Korea and Vietnam as “Democrat wars”.
It is these potentially random factors which have the power to swing elections, which make the four yearly ritual of the televised presidential debates so compelling.