Presidential debates bring on own debate: Do the words fail?

October 11, 1992|By John Fairhall | John Fairhall,Washington Bureau

WASHINGTON -- In a culture in which sports supply the metaphors for just about everything, it's not surprising that presidential debates are talked about like heavyweight VTC championship fights, media-hyped events that create exaggerated expectations.

Can defending champ George Bush deliver a knockout punch in his final fight? Will the less experienced Democratic challenger, Bill Clinton, make a fatal mistake?

Questions like these heighten the suspense leading up to the first debate tonight, but they create a misleading impression that debates transform elections.

Political scientists cite impressive evidence that debates affect elections primarily by reinforcing pre-debate voter opinions of the candidates. Although the front-runner, Mr. Clinton, might say something so stupid it paves the way for a Bush comeback and a surge by Ross Perot, analysts say it is more likely the debates will solidify support for the Arkansas governor.

What makes these candidate forums important isn't so much their possible effect on the outcome of the election as their impact on the health of the political process, say civic-minded advocates of debates. They invigorate public attention to the election, inform voters and give democracy a symbolic boost.

A major source of information about the candidates, debates are superior to sound bites on broadcast news and campaign commercials, says Kathleen Hall Jamieson, dean of the Annenberg School of Communications at the University of Pennsylvania.

Even the "most impoverished debate," says Ms. Jamieson, who has written extensively about presidential debates, means "people walk away with more accurate information."

Debates also "reveal habits of mind that foreshadow presidential strengths and weaknesses," she wrote in a 1987 essay. In his last debate with Walter F. Mondale in 1984, Ronald Reagan's "casual respect for facts and his rambling closing statement" were consistent with his "failure to monitor the intrigues" of administration officials involved in the Iran-contra affair, she said.

The candidates, of course, practice hard before debates so as not to reveal anything unrehearsed. Although this approach blunts spontaneity, it still nurtures the kind of tension audiences feel when watching high-wire acts. Voters yearn to see the man behind the image, even if it takes a fall to expose him.

Occasionally it happens. When Gerald R. Ford said in 1976 that Poland was not under Soviet control, reporters pounced on the mistake and Mr. Ford's upward drive in the polls stalled.

A cutting remark also can damage a candidate. Some people's impressions of Dan Quayle were fixed in 1988 when Democratic vice presidential nominee Lloyd Bentsen mocked the young Indiana senator's self-comparison to President John F. Kennedy. Senator," the more senior Mr. Bentsen said, "you're no Jack Kennedy."

The news media magnify such moments, highlighting them in stories for days after the debate. The networks' post-debate analysis is most influential, particularly on the question of who "won" the debate, says Indiana University professor James Bernstein, co-author of a study on this subject. "We found that people who watched the analysis and the debate were more inclined to accept the media verdict."

With this in mind, officials of the Bush-Quayle campaign are promoting a big-gaffe theory of debates, that a major misstep tonight might cause Mr. Clinton to tumble in the polls. Analysts say this is possible, but they discount the idea largely because the debates are occurring late in the campaign, after millions of voters have effectively made up their minds.

Only a sudden tightening of the race before the debates could make them more potentially pivotal events. But Mr. Clinton's lead, now 10 to 15 points in most polls, shows no signs of dissipating.

Still, with no other strategy seeming to work, the Bush camp is hoping for a debate miracle. It's "Bush's last stand," says political scientist Benjamin Ginsberg of the Johns Hopkins University, likening the president's odds to those of the U.S. Army at Little Big Horn. "You know Custer might have defeated the Indians, but it seemed unlikely."

For Mr. Clinton, on the other hand, tonight may be an opportunity to "close the sale" with the voters, as his aides put it. Analysts say that for voters who are inclined to support a candidate, debates tend to confirm their feelings.

Mr. Reagan benefited from this in 1984. Despite a poor performance in the first debate that raised questions about his competence, he put them to rest in the second debate by joking about Mr. Mondale, "I will not exploit my opponent's youth and inexperience for political purposes." The Republican nominee's lead shot up after that.

Should Mr. Clinton goof in a minor way, it probably won't matter to those inclined to vote for him. It's human nature, Mr. Ginsberg said.

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