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October 26, 2012

NASH: Debate over debates

FLOYD COUNTY — Over the last several weeks, we have been bombarded by news of debates on the national level and even here locally. It is amazing how much attention these debates have garnered, especially in this world of 24-hour news channels and immediate social media interaction. With the election just a little more than a week away, I wonder how much the debates really matter.

After the first presidential debate, there were several people that were ready to hand the presidency to Mitt Romney after President Barack Obama’s abysmal performance. A friend on Facebook was making plans for what he intends to do with the 20 percent tax cut that a President Mitt Romney was going to give him. Romney went a long way to looking presidential on the stage that night but was it enough?

Some people suggested that watching it on television, Mitt Romney was the clear winner based on the president’s posture and attentiveness. They insisted that those few who listened on the radio would have said it was a little closer.

That theory is reminiscent of the 1960 Kennedy vs. Nixon debate that may have swayed the election, in which John Kennedy looked young and vibrant while Richard Nixon appeared tired and unshaven.

Lack of preparedness, lack of sleep because of a hectic campaign schedule and his duties as president and even the thin air of the Mile High city were all offered as excuses for why the president was less than stellar that evening. Even the president admits he “had an off night” that evening, but does that translate to fewer votes on Election Day? He came back stronger in the second debate and most pundits gave the edge to him in that one.

When the vice presidential candidates got together in Danville, Ky., at Centre College it was an interesting show. The sit-down-at-the-table style seemed a little informal to me, but it was what the sides agreed upon. There was less said about the content of the two candidates’ rhetoric and more about Vice President Biden’s reactions and choice of words.

In a split screen view, Biden was smiling and laughing at the comments of Congressman Paul Ryan. It was lampooned during the cold opening of “Saturday Night Live” a couple of days later.

Most people would agree that the incumbent has a disadvantage in debates. They usually have a lot more to lose and very little to gain. They generally have a record that can be attacked and not a lot of ammunition themselves. They generally have better name recognition and by sharing the stage with their lesser-known opponents they give them a little more credibility.

Shelli Yoder, the challenger in Indiana’s 9th District, proposed 13 town-hall style debates — one in each of the district’s counties. It was a similar tactic used by Todd Young two years ago when he was the challenger.

Now 13 debates does seem a little excessive and it would be nearly impossible to get two campaigns to coordinate that many, especially if one of the candidates is a member of Congress. I do think that the two debates that were finally agreed upon, both within the last two weeks of the campaign, were not enough for a district that is very spread out geographically.

Throughout this debate season, there has been very little specific information from any of the candidates of what they would do differently. What we did hear was what the candidates thought of Big Bird and PBS in the first presidential debate. While it did make for an interesting point, it has so little impact on the lives of most Americans and even less on the federal budget, which both candidates have agreed to cut.

Many people talk of the history of debates dating back to the Lincoln vs. Douglas debates during the Senate campaign of 1858. That series of seven debates were true, face-to-face affairs without any moderator. One participant would speak for one hour, then the other would rebut for 90 minutes and then the other would have 30 more minutes to respond.

In this day of sound bites, I am sure something like this could never occur. The two minutes that are allowed now are about all of the attention span that many Americans seem to have.

Presidential debates are a relatively new form of campaigning. The presidential election of 1960 was the first to feature any debates, and after that they did not return again until 1976. Since then, they have been a regular part of each election cycle.

Over the years, candidates have gotten more and more interested in performing well in the debates. Candidates have mastered spending two minutes to repeat their platforms and still not say very much. They attack their opponent’s position and earlier statements while doing whatever possible to avoid answering the actual question that was asked.

By the time the presidential debates roll around in October every four years, it seems that most people have made up their minds. There are just a few undecided voters left and I question what they are waiting for.

Most people agree that only the 1960 and 1980 debates might have altered the outcome of the elections. This year’s election still seems to be up in the air, with many polls falling within the margin of error. In a short time, we will know the official outcome, and we can debate on whether this years debates really mattered.

— Matthew Nash can be reached at dmatthewnash@gmail.com.

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