The conventional wisdom is that debates are virtually meaningless. Countless studies, surveys and polls have tracked presidential debates and their impact on voters over more than five decades. They looked at the gaffes, the routine ducks and dodges, the gestures, and the physical appearance of the candidates. The Nixon and Kennedy debate in 1960 showed a disheveled and nervous Nixon. In the 1976 debate with Jimmy Carter, Gerald Ford uttered the colossal gaffe, "There is no Soviet domination of Eastern Europe." In the 1980 debate, Reagan zinged Carter with the classic question to the audience," "Ask yourself, 'Are you better off now than you were four years ago'?" In the 1988 debate with Bush Sr., Michael Dukakis horribly fumbled a question about the death penalty. In the 1992 debate against Clinton and Ross Perot, Bush Sr. repeatedly glanced at his watch. In the 2000 debate with George W. Bush, Al Gore sighed and rolled his eyes impatiently and exasperatedly.
Their fumbling performances barely nudged their poll numbers down. Though, in a close race the bump up for the debate winner can be huge. But it usually doesn't last. The proof of that is Democratic presidential contender John Kerry. He beat the pants off Bush II on the issue of foreign policy in their 2004 debate. Kerry got an instant poll bump-up. Yet Kerry still lost. The reason for the problematic importance of presidential debates is not hard to find. No matter how ineffectual, or just plain bad, a Republican presidential contender, the overwhelming majority of Republicans will still dutifully pull the lever for him. Likewise, no matter how ineffectual or just plain bad, a Democratic presidential contender is, the majority of Democrats will dutifully pull the lever for him. The hard balkanization of American voters along party lines was glaring apparent in 2008. Despite the endless warning that Obama might be done in by racism, namely that hordes of white Democrats would not vote for a black candidate, it never happened. Obama got more white votes than Gore or Kerry, and a crushing majority of the vote of white Democrats.
By the time of presidential debates most voters have already heard enough and seen enough of both candidates. They have long since made up their minds who they'll pick. They don't generally flip to the other side on a whim or based on something that they heard from the other candidate that suddenly touched a nerve.
It will be the same this time around. Obama and Romney are well prepped, rehearsed, and skilled, and won't stray from their talking points. Republicans will claim victory for Romney. Democrats will claim victory for Obama. It will be tantamount to an NFL game with a tie score after one overtime period. It goes down in the books as a tie. The Romney versus Obama debate will be the same.
Still, the debates do matter. More Americans will be watching the candidates at one time than at any other time during the campaign. They can't totally slip and slide for an hour or so around every thorny issue and talk in vague and sound bite generalities on the issues. They'll have to be at least marginally specific on how they'll deal with policy issues and problems. This will give some glimpse of what they're likely to say and do if they wind up in the Oval Office on these issues. Americans will also get a rare chance to see the candidates show a flash or two of emotion in answering the scripted questions. This in itself is the rarest or rarities in the age of the dumbing-down gossip, mayhem, sports, and celebrity chitchat that passes for news and information and is spoon-fed daily to American audiences.
The jousts that Obama and Romney will engage in and the barbs they will toss at with each other will tell much about which candidate is the niftiest and nimblest on their feet with a pointed response or rebuttal to an attack. Americans want presidents to be able to think on their feet and respond thoughtfully and swiftly to a crisis. They regard this as firm leadership. This instantly tags an administration as a resounding success or a dismal failure. Kennedy, Reagan, and Clinton had the gift to respond or at least were perceived to respond effectively and quickly to demanding situations. Their administrations are given high marks by historians. Nixon, Carter, and Bush Sr. were seen as sorely lacking in that area and their administrations are downgraded accordingly.
Then there are the events and issues that define the candidate and that give them an edge with the public before the debates. Dukakis's death penalty answer and Ford's Soviet Union gaffe didn't sink either of them in their poll numbers after their debate. But it did reinforce the notion among Democrats and Republicans that their man was the best choice for the job. This gave them even more incentive to get to the polls to punch the ticket that they had already decided to punch for them.
Romney needs a big and impressive win in the debates to claw back into the race. But as the history of presidential debates show the chance is that whatever bump up he gets from that won't last. When the dust settles, the Obama and Romney debates will do little to change the minds of most voters. They will simply further convince Obama's backers that their guy is the right choice for the White House. They will do the same for Romney's backer. Their debate will still be great political theater, though.
Earl Ofari Hutchinson is an author and political analyst. He is a frequent political commentator on MSNBC and a weekly co-host of the Al Sharpton Show on American Urban Radio Network. He is the author of How Obama Governed: The Year of Crisis and Challenge. He is an associate editor of New America Media. He is the host of the weekly Hutchinson Report on KPFK-Radio and the Pacifica Network.