This week the candidates will begins a series of three debates over the course of October which will cover topics ranging from social issues to foreign policy. Already pundits on both sides of the aisles are warming up the hype machine and making sure you know that these could be the debates which shape our generation. This is largely nonsense. Debates in modern politics are less about actually hashing out the ideas and more about providing a joint appearance where the American people can judge between the two standing next to one another.
While the debates do give us the last chance to catch a glimpse of the candidates outside of their hermetically-sealed campaign stops, it’s probably not best to expect a ground-breaking revelation which completely sweeps the race of its feet. That kind of reaction to a debate is rare historically, though two notable examples do show that it could happen.
What we should expect from the debates is a safe, methodical performance from both candidates. Mitt Romney and President Obama are both talented debaters and have a lot to lose going forward. Couple that with the fact that debates are generally not the place for presentations of hard policy and more a theater for the display of ideas, and we have a scenario in which we see more of a juxtaposition of two candidates views for America going forward.
There will be attacks, parries, and stumbling. That’s what is meant to happen. What is unlikely is a massive error by one of the candidates which commands the race going forward.
Debates generally don’t shape races. The race goes into the debate on a trajectory and the debate either cements the current course, or offers a slight adjustment. Only twice can I think of a debate in the 20th century which really changed the course of the presidential election. These were the Kennedy/Nixon and Carter/Reagan debates.
In Kennedy/Nixon, the ability to televise presidential debates greatly changed people’s perception of Kennedy and influenced the race in a way which had never been done. A sickly looking Nixon was compared to the Kennedy unfavorably by viewers, even though his performance wasn’t awful and was favorably reviewed by many who listened on the radio. And Carter was not a favorite of the electorate. With Reagan’s strong second debate which sold the American people on his ideals plus the ongoing turmoil both domestically and abroad, a combination of factors helped seal Carter’s defeat. Outside factors have just as much of an ability to shape a race as the debates themselves.
The debate on October 3rd will give us one last look at two candidates vision’s for America. It is one of the last chances to sell their ideas to the American people on a national level. Who knows, maybe we will see a debate which truly rocks the race and provides political scientists with a performance to study for years to come like Kennedy/Nixon.
More likely though will be that the campaign continues on the same course we’ve run since before the conventions. Picking a President based on who quips the best on liner might not be the best way to elect our officials, but don’t expect to see a hard-nosed discussion of policy either. Oh well, it should still be a good show.