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CHRISTOPHER TAYLOR'S BOOKS

Monday, October 01, 2012

DEBATING CONFUSION

"I may not answer the questions that either the moderator or you want to hear, but I'm going to talk straight to the American people and let them know my track record."

Ever since the Lincoln-Douglas debates of 1858, politicians have been fascinated with debates.  An exchange of ideas between candidates is supposed to sharpen and focus attention on the differences between the two people involved and help highlight the strengths and weaknesses of their positions.  Political junkies, news networks, and some politicians love debates.
I find them boring and useless, and I think most other Americans do, too.  Gwen Ifill is a hard left Democrat booster who works as a journalist, and she's been tagged to moderate one of the three Obama/Romney debates.  Still, she wrote a column in the Washington Post all about how debates aren't very important.  And while a lot of pundits are snickering about how a moderator would do so, I can see how someone might realize debates are not very important but still want to take part, out of enjoyment.  Something Ifill brings up is this point: debates make little to no difference in how people vote - "Gallup polls going back decades show precious little shift in established voter trends before and after debates."  Little else of her column is meaningful, except to try to defend her being a choice for moderating a debate.
And I believe she's right.  In fact, I think it goes further than debates.  Buttons, yard signs, stickers, and tee shirts don't sway voters either.  If there's a hugely overwhelming show of support on one side it will tend to influence the easily influenced and not especially thoughtful sort, but generally its just a waste of money.
But Ifill makes a common mistake in her bit on debates, she claims that the Nixon/Kennedy debate was a blowout for Kennedy and changed the election.  The myth is that a sweaty, sinister-looking Nixon lost votes to a youthful, healthy handsome Kennedy on TV but he did better on radio where the ideas were all people got (and Nixon was a hell of a talker and had a great voice).
Since the election was incredibly close and Nixon was never up by a huge margin the huge swing theory is difficult to buy to begin with, but W. Joseph Campbell shows how none of it really ever true.
Only one polling organization, Sindlinger & Company, conducted a survey of any size that included a sub-sample of radio listeners.
The Sindlinger survey, taken the day after the Kennedy-Nixon debate, indicated that radio listeners thought Nixon had prevailed, by a margin of 2-to-1.
But in their article published in Central States Speech Journal in 1987, Vancil and Pendell pointed out that the Sindlinger survey included more than 2,100 respondents — of whom only 282 had listened to the debate on radio.
They noted that “a subordinate group of 282 interviews is below the threshold normally required for a national sample.” Not only that, but just 178 of the 282 respondents “expressed an opinion on the debate winner,” Vancil and Pendell wrote.
The data that they used to support this notion was pretty much junk.  And since the only story that gives the idea of the debate deciding things is from the Chicago Tribune, who gives no support to their assertion (only mentioning "polls" without saying who or giving more details) the conclusion is questionable to begin with.And I've never yet seen anything that demonstrates that people tend to vote more for people they think won a debate than not.  You can agree someone won a debate despite the fact that you disagree with them, or vote for a guy you though was lousy in debates.  There's no tangible evidence that significant numbers vote for someone more or less likely based on debates, whether they won or not.
And given how the legacy media reports on debates, the "winner" generally is the Democrat regardless how they do - at worst, a Democrat is declared in a tie.
So here we are, just over a month from the US presidential election and no debates have been held between Romney and Obama.  That just seems awfully late in the season but honestly not very many people watch debates anyway.  Even the political conventions didn't get much attention - the show Honey Boo Boo got higher ratings than both.  This stuff is endlessly fascinating to political junkies but most people just don't care, and aren't affected.

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