This October the vice presidential debate will be held at Centre College in Danville, Ky., where I teach classes on American politics. Naturally, I've been reading up a bit on debates. I recently finished Tension City: Inside the Presidential Debates, From Kennedy-Nixon to Obama-McCain by perennial moderator Jim Lehrer. He describes what the debate experience is like from the perspective of the moderator and shares personal anecdotes and memories from a variety of presidential and vice presidential debates over the last several decades.
Lehrer takes his account one further, though, in reporting comments from interviews with numerous presidential candidates who participated in those important events. For example, in one of the 1988 debates Mike Dukakis was presented by the moderator with a hypothetical situation in which his wife is raped and murdered, and then he was asked to explain his position on the death penalty in light of that hypothetical. Dukakis gave what was widely criticized as a dry and emotionless response that merely reiterated his opposition to the death penalty on grounds of its ultimate ineffectiveness. Surprisingly, Lehrer reports that even though Dukakis got a lot of heat for how he responded, the former candidate maintains to this day that it was a fair question and he thought he gave a pretty good answer.
To me, the most interesting aspect of the book was to see how these various presidential candidates perceived the impact of their debate performance on their eventual victory or defeat. For example, Lehrer reports that after the 1976 vice presidential debate, "Mondale left the Houston stage certain that the Carter-Mondale ticket had won the election right then and there. It was over" (p. 19). Similar examples are reported throughout the book. It seems that, generally speaking, presidential candidates believe that their debate performances can easily make or break their shot at the White House.
Regardless of whether or not presidential debates are ultimately decisive factors in the outcome of elections (my own perspectives can be found here and here), Lehrer offers two key ways in which debates can indeed be considered invaluable features of presidential campaigns.
The first can be found on pages 153-154: "Voters watch debates for candidates' body language and temperament -- indications of how candidates might react under pressure, under severe testing." This is important. Many political scientists and historians agree that a president's personality is key to his (and someday her) ultimate effectiveness. Professor Fred Greenstein, for instance, is the author of The Presidential Difference: Leadership Style from FDR to Barack Obama. He outlines six distinct personal criteria that can help (or hurt) presidential effectiveness: public communication, organizational capacity, political skill, vision, cognitive style, and emotional intelligence. While all of these are important, Greenstein argues, emotional intelligence is most closely associated with presidential success. "Beware the presidential contender who lacks emotional intelligence," Greenstein writes, "in its absence all else may turn to ashes." As Lehrer said, how presidential candidates perform under the high-stakes pressure of presidential debates can offer a glimpse of their emotional intelligence and temperament, which speaks to how effective they might be once assuming office.
The second, and perhaps most important, contribution that debates make to presidential campaigns (according to Lehrer) is articulated by former president Bill Clinton: "Even if these debates don't change many votes... [they] force people who wish to be president to do things that they should do. And I am convinced that the debates I went through... actually helped me to be a better president" (p. 7). In other words, Bill Clinton was arguing that anyone who wants to be president should have a firm command of the issues and be able to explain them clearly to the American people.
Thus, while debates may not ultimately sway the decisions of many voters (see here), they help the candidates themselves to be better prepared to assume the highest office in the land.