US Elections: Debating to Victory?

US Presidential 2012 debates

No matter who wins the Presidential election tomorrow, scholars and pundits are likely to cite the three electrifying Presidential debates as pivotal moments in a hard-fought race. Mitt Romney’s flagging campaign got a huge jolt from his strong performance in the first debate against a lackluster President Obama. Other key moments included Romney’s claim to have searched “binders full of women” for qualified female candidates to fill government posts, which, thanks to real-time tweets and Facebook posts from engaged viewers, became instant Internet fodder.



But are debates just entertaining performances, or do they have a real impact on how we vote? Tomorrow, we will find out for sure whether the boost Romney gained after the first debate was enough to carry him to the White House, or whether President Obama’s more spirited performance in subsequent debates will keep him in office. Meanwhile, The Financialist has asked scholars and expert debaters where America’s style of debate comes from and what service it provides to undecided voters.



Allen Guelzo is the Henry R. Luce Professor of the Civil War Era at Gettysburg College in Pennsylvania. His book, Lincoln and Douglas: The Debates that Defined America, examines how seven debates during the 1858 senate race in Illinois elevated Abraham Lincoln from obscurity and defined him as a leader of the Republican party.



Presidential debates are important, and they continue to be important, and none more so than the latest round. It’s very evident that Governor Romney, who entered the series of debates with a campaign everyone described as faltering, has now quite suddenly turned things around to an extraordinary degree, and the fundamental reason for that hangs on his performance in the first debate. And in fact, that performance was so surprising that it forced Mr. Obama to completely readjust his debate tactics and manner.



Debating like this has been important in American politics for a long time. The most important, the most famous of all of these kinds of political debates, were those between Abraham Lincoln and Stephen Douglas in 1858 [during the Illinois Senatorial race]. Lincoln took the occasion of those seven debates with Stephen Douglas to pull off what nearly became the greatest political upset of the 19th century. Lincoln came within an ace of dumping Douglas from his seat as an incumbent, and what made it that way were the debates.



The downside of the [presidential] debates is that they rarely address substantive issues. There are really only very rarely moments when real detail gets played out. What we’re really looking at is a kind of awkward political ballet in which candidates are presenting themselves in a certain fashion. They are trying to behave according to a choreography that will please the voters. That’s not because modern debating has somehow been cheapened. Lincoln and Douglas did their share of that kind of thing, too.



David King is a senior lecturer in public policy at the Harvard Kennedy School of Government. After the 2000 presidential election, as director of a committee for the National Commission on Election Reform, he had a significant role in shaping voting rights legislation signed by President Bush.



Debates are usually held relatively close to Election Day, when “undecided voters” or “swing voters” are just beginning to pay close attention.  This is true of state and local races, and especially true of the Presidential campaigns.  Unlike the famed Lincoln/Douglas debates, modern ones are set pieces for voters to consider, “Is this someone whom I think I can trust? Does this person share my values? Would I want this person to be my friend, or my partner?”  Many of the cues that people get from debates are non-verbal, too.  It is hard to hold dozens of policy positions in our minds and, as voters, to weigh them rationally.  Instead, we develop shorthand hunches about trustworthiness and likeability.  Today’s debates are less about what candidates say than how voters react to what they are seeing on the screen.



In 2002, Jonathan Paul won the National Debate Tournament for Northwestern University. He now coaches the top-ranked Georgetown University policy debate team.



Presidential debates don’t really have a close counterpart [in competitive debating], but they resemble a hybrid of policy and parliamentary-style debate. The topics are policy-related questions, but the time limits and structure resemble the more informal parliamentary style.



Presidential debates are not well-suited for candidates to persuade the public about particular policies that they support. The strict time limits place a premium on quick one-liners at the expense of well-reasoned and supported arguments. As a result, the debates end up being judged based on which candidate looked more competent under pressure and not on the merits of specific public policy questions. The debates could be more substantive if they allowed the candidates to speak for longer amounts of time. Something akin to the debates between Lincoln and Douglas, which featured an hour-long speech followed by a 30-minute rebuttal. Of course, such a change would probably dramatically reduce the popularity of the debates and appeal only to a very wonkish segment of the public.



*Interviews have been lightly edited for grammar.