Election 2012
12:46 pm
Fri October 5, 2012

The Week In Politics: Do Political Debates Matter?

Some people call political debates the “super bowl” of politics. The media was speculating that Wednesday night’s presidential face-off “could change everything.”

So, did it? And what about the North Carolina gubernatorial debate just a couple of hours before? Do debates actually change voters’ minds? Duncan McFadyen checked in with Catawba College Political Scientist Michael Bitzer.

MCFADYEN: What stood out to you?

BITZER: I think in the gubernatorial debate, it was the first kind of statewide introduction of both candidates, and certainly Walter Dalton had a lot more to prove and a lot more to try and achieve than Pat McCrory. If you look at any of the polls, McCrory is up anywhere from 10-30 [points]. Dalton is certainly in the hole, and he needed to come out swinging and be much more aggressive, and he did that. The problem is he’s trying to differentiate himself as the supporter of middle class vs. working class vs. the McCrory, big business, corporate lobbying firms. And I’m not sure if he’s trying to pull a playbook page out of the Obama playbook, but he just doesn’t seem genuine and charismatic in that presentation. So I thought that was the biggest thing coming out of the governor’s debate.

At the presidential level, I thought Mitt Romney all along had been talked about needing to reset his campaign. Man, he got that reset button and more. The president was just flat; he seemed to really not care to be there. I know it was his anniversary, but he needed to kind of step his “A game.” He came out of it with what I thought was a C or even C- game. I think we’ll have to wait for a couple days, maybe past the weekend, to see if any public opinion polls change. But, we might see a continuing tightening up. Romney has always been behind. This might maybe be the opportunity for him to slightly move ahead.

MCFADYEN: A couple of weeks ago on Saturday Night Live, they did an interesting treatment of the “undecided voter.” Let’s listen…

SNL AUDIO: Before you get our vote, you’re going to have to answer some questions…questions like

When is the election? How soon do we have to decide?

What are the names of the two people running, and be specific?

What is the president right now? Is he or she running? Because if so, experience is maybe something we should consider….(fades out)

MCFADYEN: So, this is obviously comedic, but how accurate a portrayal of the undecided voter is this? Are these debates reaching them?

BITZER: I think through the courtesy of SNL, we’re getting a pretty solid description of a potential undecided voter. One who probably isn’t going to realize the election is on Tuesday, but show up Wednesday maybe to vote in November. It’s really, you know, with so few of these folks declaring themselves undecided, the way I read it is: the likelihood is half of these undecided voters may choose not to show up at all, because they don’t know when they need to show up. I’m more interested in the potential persuadable voter. Somebody who says, “yes, I’m voting for Barack Obama, but I may give Mitt Romney a second look now.” Those voters who flow back and forth but may be open to persuasion. I think they may be the more important voters that both campaigns are going after.

MCFADYEN: So do debates change minds, and did any of the candidates do anything that you think could change voters’ minds?

BITZER: I think that history tells us that usually the polls don’t move very much with two or three exceptions in the past. Whoever is going in as the leader usually comes out as the victor. Typically what debates tend to do is help to galvanize and solidify the partisan voters. They are being reached and being spoken to by their candidate. I think Mitt Romney gave a convincing case to Republicans that, yes indeed, you nominated the right guy. Democrats have to be concerned that the lackluster performance of the president really probably put a damper on some of these things. Now we’ve got about a week and a half, before the next debate. The big one is going to be now, can Joe Biden kind of rescue Barack Obama, similar to what Dick Cheney did with George W. Bush’s first lackluster performance in ’04.