In the midst of this presidential debate season, I’ve been wondering why it’s so important that a candidate be seen to have “won” a debate. The idea seems ill suited to the fundamental task at hand, which (in a perfect world, I know) ought to be the evaluation of a candidate’s suitability for the highest office in the land. So why the political pugilism? It’s not as if the art of debating is an important skill for a president – we have yet to see President Obama face off against Ahmadinejad in prime time.
The response to the first presidential debate is informative. Romney’s victory came not from the strength of his policy proposals contrasted with the President’s policies, but from the manner in which he communicated and the way President Obama appeared disengaged and weak. According to some polls, voters changed their opinions of the candidates’ personal qualities (see this blog article from the Monkey Cage) rather than their views on the candidates’ political positions. In a similar fashion, the personal interaction between Vice President Biden (who appeared overbearing and snide) and Congressman Paul Ryan (who managed to appear, strangely, both “presidential” and passive simultaneously) became the topic of discussion rather than the debate’s substance.
It is impressive (even mystifying) that a portion of the American electorate can remain undecided after being bombarded for months by political reporting and massive waves of television advertising. But Romney’s apparent surge in the polls after the first debate suggests that a significant number of voters simply woke up (politically speaking) this month, flipped on the television to the debate and judged the two men without the past five years as a reference point. It’s not like either of these two men is a mystery to the voting public.
It’s possible that the remaining undecided voters understand the substantive choice between the two candidates and are unable to reach a definitive conclusion based on the pros and cons of each (I should know – I am in this category myself). There is an interesting piece in today’s Post on undecided voters in Wisconsin, for example. There are a multitude of legitimate reasons for either retaining the current occupant of the White House or replacing him with the Republican nominee. But the presidential debate significantly reshaped the contest at a time when Romney’s chances seemed to be slipping away. It appears that Romney’s performance during the debate appealed more to voters and Obama’s debating style caused voters to question whether he should remain in office.
I understand that voters need to feel comfortable with their candidate and use debates to judge their character…makes sense to me. But its not as if these two guys suddenly dropped in from Mars a few weeks ago. The idea that the presidential race might be decided by comparing the candidates’ debating styles rather than the substance of their policies – especially at a time when the substantive differences on domestic politics are dramatic – should be disconcerting. Deciding who “wins” a debate based on style points seems pretty irrelevant.
Perhaps its time to change the format. If style is the deciding factor, perhaps a “Miss America” pageant type contest may be effective, replete with an evening wear competition (tuxedos for State Dinners, remember), swimsuit competition (recall the pictures of a topless Obama on vacation in Hawaii) and special talent demonstration (basketball, perhaps?). Or, as Ruth Marcus suggests today, the candidates could just bake cupcakes.
That seems just as appropriate (or just as ludicrous) as choosing a president based solely on debating technique. When the country fixates on who “wins” a debate, it may be that the electorate ends up losing.