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Debating debates of the past

October 11th, 2012

Last week, there was a number of Americans watching a debate that appeared to catch them completely off-guard. The signs leading up did not point to the eventual result. Many had understandably assumed that the generally-stiff Republican candidate would fall flat like he often had on the campaign stump. But instead, the two candidates appeared to reverse their styles. President Barack Obama was the one to put himself on the defensive, which came across as so poor that even Chris Matthews scolded him afterward on follow up coverage.

There is no doubt that the performance by the candidates in a debate is influential to the voter perception. The real question is, just how much effect will it really have? Debates first burst onto the national scene during the 1960 campaign. For those watching television, it was a momentous occasion. It was a chance to see the next potential leader of the free world discuss policy with their opponent. These forums during the campaign soon became commonplace from 1976-present.

In terms of trying to find comparisons with last week’s debate, the three that come to my mind are 1980, 1984 and 2004. The 1980 debate was perhaps the most effective in terms of election outcome. Hosted a week before the election, the race between Carter and challenger Ronald Reagan had been neck and neck, with Carter slightly ahead. However, Reagan proved to project an image as a strong, confident leader throughout the debate. Suddenly, the lead switched to Reagan over that one week and became a landslide victory.

Four years later, Reagan seemingly put himself into a hole of his own when he appeared aloof during the first debate with challenger Walter Mondale. Fortunately for Reagan, unlike four years previous, there were more debates, which allowed for him to rebound. The end result was another landslide victory for Reagan.

In 2004, George W. Bush’s scenario seemed to feature a blend between Carter in 1980 and Reagan in 1984. Like Carter, Bush faced a difficult re-election campaign and stumbled during his first debate. Unlike Carter, Bush was able to win the tough race rather than lose after performing better in the next two debates. The second and third chances allowed Bush to come out with a narrow victory rather than the defeat that Carter had met.

So what does this mean for Obama and Romney? For Romney, it is excellent to have performed well as a challenger, but he also faces the fact that there are two more debates to go, which gives Obama plenty of time to bounce back. Furthermore, Romney now has to get past the daunting town hall debates that tend to be friendlier to Democrats.  His surge after the debates could quickly evaporate, just like Mondale’s. Obama’s case has its highs and lows as well. He can still bounce back, like Reagan, but does not enjoy his huge lead.

Overall, the candidates can conclude this:  Results change from election to election. It will all depend on factors such as early voting (pro-Obama), the lack of viewers during the next two debates (pro-Romney) and the level of voter turnout (pro/con for both). So those will be the last three weeks. Should be fun!