Saturday, June 16, 2012

2012 Presidential Debate Preview, Part I

In October, three presidential debates will be held between Mitt Romney and Barack Obama, along with one vice presidential debate between Joe Biden and the Republican VP nominee. The three and a half months elapsing before the first debate represent an eternity in political time. The state of the race in October, and the intervening current events, are unknowable. As stated, even the identity of one of the participants in the vice presidential debate is currently unknown. But what, if anything, can one reasonably say about the presidential debates this far in advance?

First, the outcome of the debates will be important. Historically, presidential debates almost always demonstrated their potential to shift the race in a big way. In many cases, the outcomes of close or somewhat close races were determined by what occurred during the debates--in the sense that the losing candidate probably would have won the election had he won, instead of lost, the debate(s).

The modern era of presidential debates began in 1976. The first televised debates occurred in 1960, but no debates took place in 1964, 1968, or 1972. Starting with 1976, every presidential election has included debates, and it would be inconceivable for debates not to occur in every election for the foreseeable future. To demonstrate the power of the debates, consider the following list of elections, the winner of the debates (by conventional wisdom, prior to election day), and the election outcome:

1960. John F. Kennedy defeated Richard Nixon in the debates, and won the election by only 0.2 points. Given the closeness of the race's outcome, the debates were decisive.

1976. Jimmy Carter defeated incumbent Gerald Ford in the debates, and won the election by two points. Again, considering the small margin of victory, the debates were decisive.

1980. Ronald Reagan defeated incumbent Jimmy Carter in the debate, and won the election by more than 9 points. Before the debate, Carter was leading; the debate had a huge impact and was decisive.

1984. Walter Mondale defeated incumbent Ronald Reagan in the debates, but lost the election by 18 points. The debates apparently had no impact.

1988. George H.W. Bush and Michael Dukakis debated perhaps to a draw, though Dukakis made a serious gaffe. Bush won the election by more than 7 points. The debates may have extended Bush's victory.

1992. Bill Clinton defeated incumbent George H.W. Bush in the debates, though third party candidate Ross Perot also did well. Clinton won the election by 5.5 points. Perot managed to get nearly 19% of the vote despite having no chance to win. The debates had a huge impact, and likely handed Clinton victory.

1996. Bill Clinton defeated challenger Bob Dole in the debates, and won the election by 8.5 points. The debates probably had little impact beyond extending Clinton's victory.

2000. George W. Bush defeated Al Gore in the debates (particularly the "town hall" debate, in which Gore exhibited some bizarre behavior), and won the election despite losing the popular vote by half a point. Before the debates, Gore was ahead; after them, Bush was ahead. Obviously the debates were decisive.

2004. John Kerry defeated incumbent George W. Bush in the debates, but lost the election by about 3.5 points. Kerry was trailing by around 10 points prior the first debate, and narrowed the gap almost to a tie; Bush recovered in the second and third debate, which gave him some breathing room. Thus, the debates had a huge impact, but were not enough to swing the election.

2008. Barack Obama defeated John McCain in the debates, and won the election by 7 points. The debates served to extend Obama's lead.

Therefore, of the 10 elections with debates, 5 elections would have easily had different outcomes if the losing candidate had won the debates. In one other instance (2004), the debates came close to changing the outcome. We can also see that the winner of the debates lost the election in only 2 out of 10 cases--both times losing to an incumbent president.

In 2012, the debates between Romney and Obama will probably have a large impact on the result, and if the race is reasonably close, the debates will determine the outcome. It's very likely that the winner of the debates will also win the election. But who is more likely to win the debates--or can we even speculate this early? We will discuss those questions in Part II.