The Fallacy of the 'Critical' Debate

Romney's performance in debate might make a difference... if the debates actually mattered.


Eric Thayer/Reuters

The media and political consensus is clear: In Wednesday's first presidential debate, Mitt Romney must channel William Jennings Bryan, Bill Clinton, Abraham Lincoln, and Nelson Mandela -- or he's toast.

The assumption is that the first of three confrontations is critical and partly explains the predictable attempts by President Obama's election camp to lower expectations. You know: the challenge in placing his more professorial, nuanced responses in two-minutes packages or, yes, even finding adequate time amid various world crises to practice as much as he hoped.

Links to those would be a) garrulous ways and b) crises taking up time.

The reality is that Romney faces an uphill battle in the election, regardless. And if history is any guide, it may be folly to think the debates will turn matters around irrespective of the media attention and the parsing of every word and pregnant pause in Denver.

"Presidential Debates Rarely Game Changers" is the simple Gallup analysis of the actual election data.

It argues that one can only really point to two elections --1960 and 2000 to make a case that they did have impact. Most relevant might be 2000, when an eight-point lead in Al Gore's favor turned into a four-point deficit against George W. Bush not long after their three debates. While there is no universal explanation as to why, Bush's strong performance in the debates was clearly a factor, according to Gallup.

And even Gallup now notes that the Bush-Gore race "tightened up in the last few days before Election Day, with Gore moving into a one- to two-point lead among registered voters."

"As for 1960 and 2000, I wouldn't be so ready to attribute the movement in the polls to the debates as opposed to any number of other things that could have moved people to one side or the other," said John Mark Hansen, a University of Chicago political scientist.

"Both of the races were really close --1960 was the second closest and 2000 the fourth closest in U.S. history -- so you're basically talking about movement within the margin of error of any forecast (including the polls). And it's well to remember that there have been any number of debate sensations that had no effect at all on the final outcome."

There have been many of those, indeed. In 1976, President Gerald Ford denied in a debate with Jimmy Carter that there was Soviet domination in Eastern Europe. While Ford lost to Carter, the miscue didn't prevent him from closing very fast in the final month of the race despite his controversial pardon of Richard Nixon for his involvement in the Watergate scandal.

Equally vivid is the memory of 1984, when "Ronald Reagan got hopelessly lost on the Pacific Coast Highway in his closing statement in the final debate with Walter Mondale," said Hansen. "He looked old and confused. Democrats' hopes soared; Mondale rose way up in the polls. Weeks later, Reagan won in a landslide."

Of course, if our assumptions were wrong about the debates' importance to Romney -- and the debates' potential role as watershed moments -- it wouldn't be the first time this season that the conventional wisdom has goofed.

Think back to coverage of seemingly meteoric rises and falls of Herman Cain, Newt Gingrich, Michelle Bachman, and Rick Perry. At some point, each was briefly seen as the next hot commodity in the Republican primaries.

That happened despite what some academic analysts see as the larger reality missed by much of the media: Romney was really the guy all along, especially given greater strength among conservatives than most acknowledged. Romney's inevitability is underscored in an e-book co-authored by John Sides of George Washington University and Lynn Vavreck of the University of California at Los Angeles.

There are other examples of largely-accepted beliefs that proved errant.

Among the mistaken assumptions: that no incumbent president can win with unemployment rates so high; that the fractured Republican primary might lead to a brokered convention; that the flood of super PAC dollars inspired by Citizens United would dramatically change the election; and that religious conservatives wouldn't support a Mormon.

Others include the belief that Rick Santorum couldn't possibly be a serious challenger; that Obama would knock it out of the park with his Democratic convention speech and probably sew things up; that Gov. Chris Christie would be a rock star after the Republican convention; and that the thrill of Obama was gone even among African-Americans (polling shows no evidence of the trend among blacks).

For the likes of Hansen, there are simply more important factors that will affect election day results. Most notably, he wants to see the October data on real disposable income per capita, essentially the measure of the money people have to spend.

History shows data, rather than debates, to be predictive, he said.

Asked how Romney could possibly turn the election around with the debates, Daley said, "It almost means the president has to collapse in front of him."