Just two questions. Do you plan to watch Wednesday’s presidential debate between Republican challenger Mitt Romney and Democratic incumbent Barack Obama? And, will it make a difference?
The Gallup organization has an answer to the second question: Hardly. As in only two times in the past five decades.
“The presidential debates had little to no impact on voter preferences during the debate periods in 1984, 1988, and 1996,” the Gallup study found. “By contrast, the debates of 1960 and 2000 seem to have been associated with meaningful shifts in the horse races for those elections, whereby the ultimate winner moved from a deficit position to front-runner.”
One interesting twist from the Gallup study. There were no debates in 1964, 1968 and 1972. Yet somehow voters still shifted through the campaign material and made a choice.
Another interesting tidbit: In 1976 President Gerald Ford made a substantial misstatement when he said: “There is no Soviet domination of Eastern Europe and there never will be under a Ford Administration.” The moderator, Max Frankel of The New York Times, was taken aback. “I’m sorry, what? … did I understand you to say, sir, that the Russians are not using Eastern Europe as their own sphere of influence in occupying most of the countries there and making sure with their troops that it’s a communist zone?” Ford dug in. “I don’t believe, Mr. Frankel, that the Yugoslavians consider themselves dominated by the Soviet Union.” Or he added, the Romanians and the Poles. He said all three countries were independent.
This misstatement was a big one. But did it cost Ford the debate or the election? The Gallup poll shows that James Carter was leading by 15 points before the debates – and by only 5 points after. That said: It still could have cost Ford the election. Most political scientists see 1976 as one of the most impressive comebacks by a politician; Ford lost that race by just two points.
The two elections that Gallup said the debate made a difference were 1960 and 2000. The 1960 debate was the first one televised. Richard Nixon didn’t translate well to the new medium. He was sweating and looked less relaxed than Kennedy. He even passed on responding to the first Kennedy answer, saying, “I have no comment on that.”
Gallup said the 2000 presidential race also shifted after the debates. The back and forth was snippy. And at one point Vice President Al Gore sighed to show his dismissal of Texas Gov. George W. Bush. Voters, however, saw the forum differently and Bush vaulted into the lead with a swing of 12 points in the polls.
Will the debate in 2012 be like the 2000 race? Team Romney is betting its entire campaign on a yes. On Meet The Press (and on ABC’s This Week) a Romney surrogate, New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie said Wednesday night is the restart of this campaign and that the polls would reflect that shift.
So will you be watching? Probably yes, but fewer of you. The Nixon-Kennedy debate reached some 63 million people – a sizable number of voters. By 2000 the number was down to 41 million smaller in terms of numbers and percentage of viewers.
Perhaps one reason for that decline is that as America grows more diverse – the presidential debate format largely focuses on a country that is largely white and older. Indeed minority journalists sent questions in writing because none of the moderators were from Asian American, African American, Hispanic or Native American communities.
The two candidates were asked three questions by the Native American Journalists Association: “How would you uphold rights held by Native Americans under treaty agreements with the U.S. government, especially agreements meant to protect tribes’ sacred sites and water rights? As states present policies that could attempt to bypass laws stemming from these agreements, would your administration restore or continue to protect these rights for tribes?”
Then: “How will you uphold the American Indian Health Care that was established by treaties, as the funds are being cut annually?”
And finally, “How would you improve the sovereign relationship between tribes and the state/federal governments so all parties can work together for better solutions to issues that come up, like jurisdictional problems, land issues and gaming compacts?”
Don’t expect any answers on Wednesday night. If. At. All.
Mark Trahant is a writer, speaker and Twitter poet. He is a member of the Shoshone-Bannock Tribes and lives in Fort Hall, Idaho. He has been writing about Indian Country for more than three decades. His e-mail is: firstname.lastname@example.org.