Presidential debates define more campaigns than they decide
BY RANDY KREHBIEL World Staff Writer
Wednesday, October 03, 2012
10/03/12 at 7:31 AM
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Rule No. 1 in presidential debates is to look presidential.
Rule No. 2 is to not look foolish.
"Sometimes," said Kim Gaddie, a political communications scholar at the University of Oklahoma, "simply not messing up is enough."
Jeanette Mendez, head of Oklahoma State University's political science department, puts it another way.
"Good is good," she said. "But bad is even worse."
Common wisdom is that televised debates rarely decide presidential elections. Gallup says the frontrunner in its polls has flipped only twice after televised debates, in 1960 and again in 2000.
Almost paradoxically, though, presidential debates often produce the defining moments of a campaign. From Richard Nixon's pale, sweat-beaded face in 1960 through John McCain's oddly disoriented performance in 2008, the debates have served to encapsulate and amplify the candidates' public image - often in unflattering ways.
"If you have a poor performance, that will linger longer," Mendez said. "If one of them comes out and blows it, I think that would matter."
With former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney generally thought to be running slightly behind incumbent President Barack Obama, Mendez said it is important for Romney in Wednesday night's debate that he "come in looking presidential. If he looks anything other than that, Obama has an advantage because Obama is already president."
Mendez said Obama has to be conscious of his facial expressions.
"Obama is the type to show disdain really easily," she said, "so I think we'll be watching his reaction when Romney presents something. We saw some of that when he debated Hilary Clinton (in 2008).
"He's already shown that he thoroughly disapproves of what Mitt Romney is talking about. He's a very passionate person who strongly believes in what he's talking about. When somebody counters it, we'll be looking at his body language."
In a similar vein, Gaddie said it would be best to watch the telecast in a split-screen format that shows both candidates at the same time.
"That can be important," Gaddie said. "Unconsciously, we often do something - we smirk or make some kind of comment that we don't realize we're doing. So you could have (two people watching different networks) and get two different perceptions of the candidates."
The substance of the 1960 Nixon-Kennedy debate, for instance, has been long forgotten. It is Nixon's appearance that remained fixed in the public's mind.
"There are a variety of different factors that come into play," said Gaddie, managing editor of the OU-based Social Sciences Quarterly. "Some of those are simple things, such as how they dress and what color tie they wear or how polished their delivery is or how comfortable they seem."
Mendez said that "everything looked stacked for Romney to do well" because the experience he gained in the Republican primary debates. She said Romney is "very fact-oriented" and likes to use "90-second punches" and "one-liners."
Obama, she said, "gives a very good speech, but he's very long-winded. His oratory style doesn't match up with debates very well."
Mendez and Gaddie said the debates should be viewed as part of voters' overall decision-making process.
"If you look at them in isolation, do they make a difference?" Gaddie asked. "No. Perhaps not all by themselves. Do we learn information from the candidates we didn't previously know in the debates? Yes."
Places to watch the Wednesday debate
Debate begins at 8 p.m. CDT on all broadcast network and cable news outlets.
- Circle Cinema, 12 S. Lewis Ave.
- Oklahoma Republican Party Victory Headquarters, 2816 E. 51st St., Suite 103.
- Oklahomans for Equality, Dennis R. Neill Equality Center, 621 E. Fourth St.
- Restoration, 1314 N. Greenwood Ave.
- Young Professionals North, Boom Boom Room, 12570 E. 21st St.
Original Print Headline: Debates defining more than deciding
Randy Krehbiel 918-581-8365
President Barack Obama and Mitt Romney: Experts say both candidates have more to lose in Wednesday's first debate than they have to gain.