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Odium at the podium

This year, with such a close contest, the debates could have an impact like never before. Here’s what to watch for.
By STEVEN STARK  |  September 25, 2008


In most presidential elections, the importance of the debates is over-rated. Most voters end up deciding that the winner of the debates is the candidate who they were already leaning toward. In fact, there have been only two campaigns — 1960 (Kennedy vs. Nixon) and 1980 (Carter vs. Reagan) — where the debates arguably changed enough minds to affect the outcome.

This year, however, the debates will likely have a profound impact on the election. Part of that is because this race is so close. But it’s mostly because — for the first time since 1928 — neither presidential candidate has any formal connection to an incumbent or a former administration. As a result, both Barack Obama and John McCain are still relatively unknown, and the impression they make in their three widely watched joint appearances will probably prove decisive.

Who will benefit the most from the debates? Apply these rules and you’ll know.

1) Debates are about memorable lines and key moments
What voters tend to recall are knockout lines and exchanges. This is especially true in that the media replays these moments again and again, reinforcing their importance.

In 1980, the headline replay was Ronald Reagan’s “There you go again,” and later, “Are you better off than you were four years ago?” (which came in his closing summary, so voters could really remember it). In 1988, it was Lloyd Bentsen’s riposte to Dan Quayle, “You’re no Jack Kennedy.” Note that, in each case, the comment was short (the better to be rebroadcast on the news) and that two of these three comments were directed at the other candidate (rather than the audience), thereby highlighting the drama.

2) Gaffes take center stage
The annals of presidential debates are filled with far more instances of candidates who hurt themselves with their performances than help themselves. This helps explain why these joint appearances seldom end up moving many voters: the candidates are so afraid of making a mistake that they don’t take many chances, either.

What defines a debate gaffe? They’re not really factual mistakes, but instances when candidates reinforce the public’s worst fears about them. Gerald Ford’s description of Poland as “free” in 1976 confirmed for many that he might not be intellectually up to the presidency, just as Michael Dukakis’s professorial defense of his opposition to the death penalty (in answer to a question of what he’d do if his wife were raped or murdered) indicated to many that he was a member of the elite and out-of-touch with the common voter.

(Similarly, while not “gaffes” in the conventional sense, Quayle’s “lost in the headlights” performance in 1988 reinforced the sentiment that he wasn’t prepared for national office, just as Reagan’s lackluster performance in the first debate in 1984 raised suspicions he might be too old. Of course, Quayle got away with his awful performance because veeps don’t matter much, and Reagan had another debate to undo the damage — and did.)

So, in this election, what could constitute a gaffe differs for each candidate, depending on the circumstances. For McCain, anything in his performance that indicates he’s too old, he’s unprepared to deal with the economy, or he’s a traditional Republican could end up being devastating for him. And for Obama, anything that smacks of his being too imperious, inexperienced, pliable, or, in truth, too liberal, could spell trouble. Sarah Palin’s Achilles-heel million-dollar question is the same as Quayle and Ford’s before her: does she display enough acumen for the job? For Joe Biden, the problem will be the one he always has: will he put his foot in his mouth and dominate post-debate discussion that way?

3) Visuals can steal the show
A debate is first and foremost a television show; how one acts is frequently as important as what one says. (“Action is character,” wrote F. Scott Fitzgerald.) Although the visual advantage JFK had over a poorly made-up Richard Nixon has been exaggerated, the truth is that Kennedy always looked marvelous on TV, and anyone appearing in a studio with him instantly paled by comparison. (Ditto for Reagan.)

In the past, visuals have played out in different ways. Al Gore couldn’t help sighing during George W. Bush’s turns in the first debate in 2000, leaving the impression among some that he was a bit of a boor. When George H.W. Bush looked at his watch during the town-hall debate of 1992, it sent a clear message about what he thought of having to deal with the public — and it wasn’t a good one.

In this year’s debates, the public will assess the age issue visually: does Obama appear too young (or inexperienced) or McCain too old? And, as in other years, voters will try to come to terms with what it would be like to have this leader as a constant TV companion for four years.

Voters have doubts as to whether Obama has the experience and background to be president, and whether the change he offers is too radical. With McCain, the doubts are about whether he’s over the hill and offers enough change. The candidate who uses these appearances to deal with the misgivings voters have about his candidacy is likely to emerge as the winner in November.

To read the “Presidential Tote Board” blog, go to Steven Stark can be reached at

Odds: 6-7 │ this past week: same
Odds: 7-6 │ this past week: same

Related: Debatable, Long national nightmare, Maverick in a mess, More more >
  Topics: Stark Ravings , Barack Obama, John McCain, presidential debates,  More more >
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Message from the Author: The Odds Have Changed to Obama!
     With the financial tidal wave hitting the McCain campaign, the odds are shifting. McCain is hardly in the terrible position most of the media are positing. But he is now in a position where something has to change to give him the tail wind he needs to win. It could come from the debates; it could come from an improvement in the economic situation. But as of today, Obama is now a narrow 6-7 favorite to win the presidency,
By Steven Stark on 09/25/2008 at 9:38:37
Re: Odium at the podium
not only would it be a sorry day for the republic, but particularly for harvard law, the legal system, and the entities which spawn practitioners of that trade when one of their own goes down in rhetorical combat to a sailor, albeit a naval officer. with less than 40 days left in this outting, what these 'debates' will show is a tired, gray gentleman facing yesterday in contrast to an avant garde, articulate visionary. the two stand in sharp relief to one another. they entire thing could be done with the candidates using sock-puppets and mouthing the words. laissez le bon temps rouler...or let's just say anchors a-way, yes?
By jeffmcnary on 09/25/2008 at 12:02:44
Re: Odium at the podium
"Avant-garde, articulate visionary" says it perfectly, Mr McNary (not to mention ("laissez le bons temps rouler"!). Like Coltrane, Obama is a major African-American intellectual. The question is, does he play something gentle like "Naima," or go all out with "A Love Supreme."
By gordon marshall on 09/25/2008 at 12:26:50
Re: Odium at the podium// Author Correction
 One small correctio, pointed out by an astute reader. We don't have to go all the way back to 1928 to find two candidates with no connection to an incumbent administration, etc. In 1952, the Eisenhower-Stevenson race offered a similar choice. 
By Steven Stark on 09/25/2008 at 1:55:32
Re: Odium at the podium// Author Correction
 One small correction, pointed out by an astute reader. We don't have to go all the way back to 1928 to find two candidates with no connection to an incumbent administration, etc. In 1952, the Eisenhower-Stevenson race offered a similar choice. 
By Steven Stark on 09/25/2008 at 1:55:58
Author correction
 A sharp reader points out that it wasn't 1928 when we last had two candidates unconnected to any present or former incumbent administration -- it was 1952. My apologies.
By Steven Stark on 09/25/2008 at 2:14:33
Re: Author correction
An astute reader points out that the last time two candidates with no connection to any incumbent administrations last faced off wasn't in 1928; it was 1952.
By Steven Stark on 09/25/2008 at 2:28:31
Re: Odium at the podium
By Steven Stark on 09/25/2008 at 3:02:06
Author Correction
 An astute reader points out that the last campaign with two candidates not connected to any incumbent administration wasn't 1928 -- it was 1952. Correction noted!  
By Steven Stark on 09/25/2008 at 3:41:05
Author's Correction
 An astute reader points out that the last race in which we had two candidates with no ties to a present or past incumbent was not in 1928 but in 1952.My apologies!
By Steven Stark on 09/26/2008 at 2:21:47

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