When it comes to televised presidential debates, the wise men and women of the mass media are haunted by ghosts. Almost all of them are looking for Richard M. Nixon's 1960 bad makeup or Gerald R. Ford's 1976 Polish goof.
Tuesday night the makeup was fine and there were no Polish jokes. As a result, the pundits were thrown back onto the contrast between their preconceptions of what the debate might bring vs. what they thought they saw for Cleveland.
So if you were Walter Cronkite or Bruce Morton on CBS, who talked as though they expected a Ronald Reagan goof, you were impressed by the Republican's ability to carry off a no-fault debate, and your post-game commentary was friendly to the Gipper.
But if you were Dan Rather, Lesley Stahl or Bill Plants of the same network, you gave credit to President Carter for holding his own against the polished actor-politician, whom you apparently expected to do better.
A simple fact: on the basis of our scant national experience with this art form, instant analysis of it is usually worthless. After the Reagan-John B. Anderson debate the analysts said Anderson held his own, but within days the polls showed Anderson sinking like a cold souffle. The instant analysts missed the significance of Nixon's makeup and misread the electoral consequences of Ford's Polish slip.
Not that this record discourages many of the instant analysts. Only NBC voluntarily passed up the chance to pass judgement on who did better in the debate right after it ended. At the other extreme, ABC cooked up a new form of instant analysis that set a new standard for pernicious irrelevance.
This was a national phone-in poll of viewers, a sort of 1980 version of the famous 1936 telephone poll conducted by Literary Digest magazine, which confidently predicted Alf Landon's victory over Franklin D. Rooselvelt. The Literary Digest poll was wrong because more Republicans than Democrats owned telephones.
The ABC "poll" was similarly given to distortions for a host of reasons. It cost 50 cents to participate, for example, and it was possible for callers to register their opinions more than once. The system was also riddled with technical problems, as ABC learned Tuesday night.
ABC's variant exploited a new Bell System invention that had never been tried, and still has not been tried successfully. The lines jammed and clogged, tens or hundreds of thousands of Americans never got through, and some who thought they were registering a pro-Carter sentiment apparently got counted in the Reagan column.
No matter. ABC proudly announced that Reagan had bested Carter in the debate by a 2-to-1 ratio, according to this nonfunctioning nonsample of nonrepresentative Americans.
For ABC, the network that was supposed to be trying to establish a serious reputation for news coverage during this election year (though it couldn't make room in its schedule of movies for the Reagan-Anderson debate), this ought to be a major corporate embarassment. The Carter campaign will think it is worse than that if Carter can later blame his defeat in 1980 on a public perception that Reagan won the debate.
CBS also opted for irrelevance, although of an innocent sort. CBS decided to "sample" public opinion by interviewing half a dozen of the only Americans who saw the debate without really seeing it -- members of the public who had one of the rare tickets to sit inside Cleveland's Convention Center amid the klieg lights and cameras.
On the Today show yesterday, NBC did the same. Just one of the people interviewed in Cleveland admitted that the debate had changed her vote. She refused to say how.
Warren Mitofsky, who runs public opinion polls for CBS, observed yesterday that instant public reactions to a debate don't mean much. The real results show up a few days later, after voters have had a chance to read about the debate, think and talk about it with friends and listen to expert analyses, Mitofsky said. His observation has the crystalline quality of perceived truth.
Another simple fact: though the mass media is deeply wedded to the significance of mass opinion, in this case the net assessment of the mass audience doesn't matter. More than 100 million Americans may have watched the debate, but the voting intentions of 80 or even 90 percent of them were fixed before the first question was asked.
The relevant audience for this exercise consisted of undecided voters, decided but indifferent citizens who still aren't sure if they'll bother to vote, and swayable voters who had made only a tentative choice before the debate.
The instant analysts on the networks didn't deal with this fact. Instead they dwelt on the showbiz aspects of the debate, wondering if Carter looked tense or if Reagan looked "reasonable," whatever that means. A great deal of the comment was on the theme that Carter had hoped to show Reagan up as a dangerous man to allow into the White House, but failed to do so.
There is no straightforward, scientific way to measurre the impact of the debate in electoral terms. The Associate Press released one poll with a pleasingly perverse finding: both candidates improved their positions by 6 percentage points with a random sample of 1,062 voters questioned before and after the debate.
A CBS-New York Times poll released last night showed what amounted to a draw in opinion on who won, and said that just 6 percent of a sample of 1,019 voters had changed their minds because of the debate.
Those voters didn't explain their reasoning, but a victim of an overdose of instant analysis is tempted to suggest that a lot of them probably thought about a subject the instant analysts mentioned only fleetingly -- the issues. Perhaps it is logical in the media age that media commentators are preoccupied with appearances rather than substance, but this is no gurantee that the voters must also be.
Of all the instant analyzers, only Tom Brokaw on the Today show yesterday seemed interested in an issue. His was the strategic arms limitation treat (SALT II).
In fact, the debate was riddled with specific references to specific topics which -- if the polls can be believed -- a lot of Americans really care about: winflation and unemployment, energy, women's rights, nuclear arms control and more. On the Today show Carter's campaign chairman proffered a revolutionary opinion. His man won, Robert S. Strauss said, because "he's on the right side of these issues."
That was a partisan remark, naturally. But it seems reasonable to assume that some of the voters who decided Tuesday night how they will vote did so because they agreed or disagreed with things the candidates said.