Presidential Debates Seldom Shake Solid Support

RICHARD E. VATZ and LEE S. WEINBERG

October 11, 1992|By RICHARD E. VATZ and LEE S. WEINBERG

"If Kitty Dukakis were raped and murdered. . . ." That was the strange beginning of the most famous exchange of the 1988 presidential debates, an exchange between CNN's Bernard Shaw and Michael Dukakis in which Mr. Dukakis' impassive and clinical response defending his opposition to the death penalty sealed his fate in the election itself.

That is the conventional wisdom -- but it is wrong.

In fact, hours before that final presidential debate, ABC's Peter Jennings had reported that Mr. Bush's lead appeared to be insurmountable, in all likelihood regardless of what happened in the debate.

The exaggerated perception of presidential debates as a possible transformer of electoral fortunes is an enduring one.

In 1984, James Baker, President Reagan's chief of staff, fearing just such a turnabout, urged the president not to debate at all. Mr. Baker must have thought his worst fears had come true when Ronald Reagan, in his first debate with Walter Mondale, put on the most embarrassing debate performance in presidential debate history -- stumbling, stammering, forgetting, making long and eerie pauses as he seemed to grope for words that just wouldn't come. Yet his lead in the polls dropped less than the margin of error.

In the second debate, his performance improved slightly, but only slightly. Finally, Mr. Reagan's closing remarks consisted of a meandering -- and perilously close to incoherent -- account of his travels along the California coast. But he had performed well enough to provide his supporters a basis for plausibly denying that he was too incoherent to continue in office.

The reality is that contrary to conventional wisdom, presidential debates are only likely to affect election outcomes when support for the leading candidate is soft or unstable. Once a candidate's support solidifies, he is accorded a presumption, meaning that any doubt regarding his performance is resolved in his favor.

The harder and more stable the support, the stronger the protective presumption. Almost nothing Mr. Reagan said in 1984 could have hurt him; almost nothing Mr. Dukakis said in 1988 could have helped him. That apparently dramatic defining moment of the 1988 debates merely ratified the already-determined results.

Conventional wisdom also suggests that the commission of gaffes poses a threat to presidential candidates in debate. But the protective presumption for the lead candidate whose support is strong and stable allows that candidate significant latitude to make mistakes without incurring electoral costs.

It is instructive to note the distinction that William Safire makes in his "Language of Politics" dictionary between a blooper (a slip of the tongue) and a gaffe (a blunder, not necessarily verbal). Slips of the tongue abound in presidential campaigns and have almost no effect on support; gaffes, however, if significant enough, can affect the fortunes of the candidate with soft support. And some gaffes are not obvious at the time of commission.

Everyone "knows" that in the 1960 presidential debates Richard Nixon lost because he looked terrible, a fact believed validated by surveys indicating that people who heard the debates on radio tended to think he did well, whereas people who saw the debates on television tended to think he didn't do so well.

Maybe, but on reviewing the debates, Mr. Nixon just doesn't look that bad. There were two gaffes, however, that have received perhaps insufficient historical note. First, Mr. Nixon often tried to minimize the difference between his and Mr. Kennedy's "goals," thus inadvertently conceding that Mr. Kennedy was authentic presidential timber. Second, on several opportunities to follow-up Kennedy responses, Nixon inexplicably responded that he had no comment, creating implicit concessions of Kennedy's points.

The question in 1992 comes down to this: whether Mr. Clinton's somewhat soft, but reasonably stable support (the margin has been reliably around ten points for weeks) offers Mr. Bush significant opportunities to use the debates to achieve an upset victory. Possibly, but not probably.

For Mr. Bush to make gains will require both well-planned substantive and stylistic strategies along with a near-perfect execution of them, especially in the all-important first debate. But the public statements of Mr. Bush during this campaign suggest absence of a winning strategy.

George Bush has been unable thus far, for example, to dilute discussion of the economy -- a no-winner for Mr. Bush -- with discussion of foreign policy, despite the fact that this is Mr. Bush's greatest strength and Mr. Clinton's greatest weakness.

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