The first presidential debate will be held at 9 p.m., Wednesday, on most of the major TV networks. You might say it’s the “kickoff” of the presidential campaign season, which illustrates my observation about the use of sports metaphors to the presidential race.
It always amuses me when political pundits talk about some candidate being ahead this week, as if they were talking about a football team leading at halftime. The truth is, they’re only talking about the latest poll results. There’s only one scoring event in political contests and that’s election day. But, never mind. People like their sports, so that’s the way news media play them.
People tune in the debates not to learn about issues, but to see if any candidate scores “a knockout punch.” The debates are viewed like boxing matches. Those of us who have been around a few years remember the first TV debates in 1960 between then Vice President Richard Nixon and challenger John F. Kennedy, a U.S. Senator from Massachusetts.
Listeners who heard the debate on radio thought that Nixon was easily the winner. However, TV viewers gave Kennedy the decision. The reason was that Kennedy looked fresh and presidential, while Nixon looked tired and defeated. What hurt Nixon was that he was suffering from a fever and truly looked sick. His famous five o’clock shadow didn’t help, and he refused makeup.
Nixon came across the black-and-white screens of that day looking pale and sweaty. Kennedy looked tan and fit. Although many voters knew little about Kennedy before that single 1960 debate, they came away seeing him as a viable presidential candidate.
There are many other famous stories of presidential debate high points and goofs. President Gerald Ford, in his 1976 debate with Jimmy Carter, said eastern European nations were not in danger from the Soviet Union.
Doomed Democratic presidential candidate Walter Mondale in 1984 said he would increase taxes, a sure death blow to any political campaign. George H.W. Bush learned that in 1992 when his opponents brought back his broken pledge, “Read my lips. No new taxes.”
So TV viewers watch the presidential debates not to learn about the candidates’ views or platforms, they watch them the same way that NASCAR fans watch races, waiting for spectacular wrecks. Or, at best, the debate fans view them to rate the candidates’ looks or demeanor.
The truth of the matter is that a large segment of the American voting public is very uneducated on political issues. That’s why big campaign war chests and negative TV ads play such a big role. People just listen to a lot of lies, half-truths and slogans and base their vote on that. Or, they vote the way some friend or relative tells them to vote.
And more than anything, the mood of the voter determines how he or she casts a ballot on election day. If there’s bad news on TV or gasoline prices are up, woe to the incumbents. An unemployed person is more likely to vote against an incumbent. When people feel frustrated, all they can think to do is to vote. In one sense, that’s fortunate. At least we don’t have people starting armed revolutions when they’re discontented.
Ronald Reagan, the great communicator that he was, captured that public sentiment factor when he asked during one of the debates, “Are you better off now than you were four years ago?” That was in 1980, when American hostages were being held in Iran and interest rates were above 20 percent. While all those problems weren’t necessarily the fault of President Carter, Reagan framed the question in such a way that voters would decide that a presidential change was the only way things could get better.
Mitt Romney’s campaign briefly tried asking that question, but I haven’t heard it lately. Maybe he thought better. Truth is that four years ago, the banking system was about to collapse, housing had hit bottom and the auto industry was in danger of going under. We were on the brink of a depression. The economy hasn’t soared by leaps and bounds, but at least it’s going in the right direction.
The Nov. 6 election may come down to how the majority of voters feel that day, if gas prices are up or if an international crisis is brewing.
Using the four-years ago measure, Obama should have an easy victory. But who knows what may change the minds of our fickle voters.
Jones is a Carrollton resident and reporter for the Times-Georgian.