The Debates: No Drama but a Dramatic Effect

By Robert G. Kaiser
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, October 31, 2008

"This cake looks baked," says Charlie Cook of the 2008 election. The normally cautious proprietor of the Cook Political Report, famous for its cogent and careful election analysis, is certain of the outcome: a Democratic landslide. He has lots of company among his peers.

Of course, the Charlie Cooks don't decide elections -- voters do, and they still must be heard from. So let's just say that Barack Obama has had a remarkable October. It's been quite a month -- financial collapses, Sarah Palin and Tina Fey, Joe the Plumber and more political commercials on television than we have ever seen before.

But what if none of that was as important as four 90-minute television programs seen by more Americans than any episode of "American Idol"? Here's a brash assertion: The debates did it.

Okay, okay, this is an oversimplification. Lots of things "did it." We could fill today's Post with the details. Nor is this an obvious conclusion that is widely shared. In fact, our pundits appear to have put the debates behind them, hardly mentioning them in the past fortnight. After all, there were no zingers, no blood on the floor, no egregious goofs -- nothing happened!

Well, not exactly. There is now a lot of evidence from polls and focus groups suggesting that Sen. Obama has significantly improved his standing with a great many Americans since the first debate on Sept. 26, exactly five weeks ago. Americans find Obama more empathetic, stronger, better prepared to be president and just more sympathetic a figure than they did before the debates.

Most important, Obama has moved into the lead. In early September, the race was tied. In the Washington Post-ABC News poll on Sept. 9, soon after the Republican convention, McCain had a two-point lead among likely voters, 49 to 47 percent. By the poll taken just after the second Obama-McCain debate, released Oct. 13, Obama led 53 to 43. In the three weeks since, the race has been utterly stable. Yesterday, the Post-ABC tracking poll had Obama ahead 52 to 44 percent. (The margin of error in all of these polls is plus or minus 3 percent.)

Were the debates responsible for these developments? Probably. They attracted many more Americans than any other event or aspect of the campaign. According to Nielsen, the four debates this fall attracted a total audience of 242 million (of course, many people watched all four). "The debates had a big impact," says Andrew Kohut of the Pew Research Center for the People and the Press, the dean of American pollsters. "Obama won all three by huge margins."

Curiously, the McCain and Obama campaigns shared a strong interest in avoiding any drama or surprises in the debates. They negotiated a 31-page "memorandum of understanding" to govern the debates that reeks of anxiety about unexpected developments. The moderators' roles are carefully spelled out, including instructions for Tom Brokaw on how to handle any unruly questioner in the town hall debate held in Nashville on Oct. 7. If a member of the audience who was allowed to ask a question departed from the text of the question Brokaw had previously chosen, "the moderator will cut off the questioner and advise the audience that such non-reviewed questions are not permitted." The candidates agreed to bring "no props, notes, charts, diagrams" into a debate, and to forswear "any challenges for further debates" and promised not to "address each other with proposed pledges." (These quotations come from a copy of the memo provided to The Post.)

The fulfillment of the shared desire for no surprises is just what disappointed the pundits looking for drama and points to be scored. But the sponsors of the debates were not disappointed.

Frank Fahrenkopf, chairman of the Republican National Committee during most of the Reagan era, is the Republican co-chairman of the Commission on Presidential Debates, which brings us these quadrennial spectacles. "We were extremely pleased with the way the debates turned out" this year, Fahrenkopf said this week. "I think they were very important."

Fahrenkopf offers an analysis of the debates that has historical roots:

"I analogize this election to 1980," he says, using a brand of English that suggests too many years spent in Washington. That year, he recalls, the country was in terrible shape and voters ached to make a change, but the candidate offering change was a former movie actor named Ronald Reagan. "The American people wondered, was this guy up to it?" All that uncertain voters wanted was reassurance that Reagan wasn't too risky a choice, Fahrenkopf says.

Reassurance was slow in coming. A week before Election Day, polls showed Reagan and President Jimmy Carter in a virtual dead heat. That was the date of their only televised debate. Before a huge audience, Reagan came off as everyone's lovable uncle. "There you go again!" he scoffed when Carter (quite accurately) described Reagan's past opposition to the Medicare program. At the end of the debate, in a closing statement, Reagan asked: "Are you better off now than you were four years ago?" The prime interest rate at the time was 14.5 percent; inflation was running at an unprecedented 13 percent. Almost no one in America felt "better off" than a year earlier.

With help from Iranian ayatollahs who refused to release their American hostages before the election, a landslide developed in just a few days. Reagan trounced Carter by nearly 10 percentage points. The debate made the big difference, Fahrenkopf says (and many scholars agree). "The country was reassured."

And this year has been similar, though less sudden. "I think it took Obama three debates for people to see how calm he was, how composed he was, that you couldn't get to this guy," says Fahrenkopf. "He was very well organized. By the time that final debate was over, I think he satisfied the qualms of the American people."

"Then," he adds, "when the economy went into the ditch, McCain had a really tough battle."

Another student of elections who has long been comparing this race to 1980 is Peter Hart, a Democratic pollster who, with Republican Neil Newhouse, conducts the NBC News-Wall Street Journal poll. In an interview last spring, Hart said the country was aching to make a change of party in the White House. Obama, like Reagan, was an agent of change whom the country would embrace if he could reassure voters that he was up to the job, that it wasn't too risky to elect him, Hart thought.

"But Barack Obama faced a special problem," Hart said this week. Obama is "the least credentialed" challenger for the presidency in the modern era. At the same time, expectations for his debate performance, "because of his rhetorical skills, were much higher" than for challengers in the recent past.

Obama rose to the occasion, Hart said. "In the debates, his ability to crystallize issues and present them in a cool, intellectual and reassuring way provided an important contrast to John McCain, because McCain showed such an unsteady and erratic pattern going into the first debate over the economic situation." Hart was referring to McCain's brief "suspension" of his campaign, suggested postponement of the first debate, then about-face. That first debate "was a chance for Barack Obama not only to show his skills, but also to contrast himself with the more mature but less steady John McCain," Hart said.

Looking back just weeks later, the talking heads who passed instant judgments on the presidential debates don't look too wise. From the first ("McCain won the debate," said William Kristol of the Weekly Standard) to the last ("This debate went to John McCain," said Andrea Mitchell of NBC), most of the commentary seemed out of sync with the more scientific evidence.

Those with the best seats for the debates were the moderators. Bob Schieffer of CBS, who moderated the final one, says of Obama, "I think he won on demeanor."

"The vote for a president is different," Schieffer observes. "People vote for the person they feel most comfortable with, especially in a crisis." In Obama, he speculates, "people saw somebody who seemed very composed, very sure of himself, and I think they liked that."

Research editor Alice Crites contributed to this report.

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