Sabato's Crystal Ball

To Repeat: Debates Matter

Larry J. Sabato, Director, U.Va. Center for Politics October 4th, 2004

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Over the past several weeks, your Crystal Ball has received several dozen e-mails from Bush supporters, chiding us for not declaring the election and certifying their strongly held view that President Bush was the inevitable winner.

Now, to their regret and sadness, our friends on the right have their answer, and perhaps they can see why we wrote in mid-September that “we insist the election is not over yet, despite the impressive efforts of many to bring down the curtain six week s early.” Yes, conservatives may well be correct that, in the end, Bush will win–but it wasn’t proven by the presidential face-off we all witnessed on Sept. 30.

The first presidential debate has changed the calculus of 2004–at least temporarily–and so at this stage of an extremely competitive campaign, President Bush no longer appears to be the certain choice of voters on Nov. 2. Caution is in order, since this new reality can be transformed quickly by a different result in the second or third debate (more on this later). However, as the Crystal Ball insisted on Sept. 14, “Debates do matter…and perhaps more so in a ma cro-issue year like this. Voters are unsettled to varying degrees about the incumbent, but they haven’t been sold on the challenger’s alternatives, either.”

In the first debate, President Bush’s unsteady performance sent some of his unsettled backers packing, and the challenger, Senator Kerry, welcomed them onto his campaign bus, having sold them for the moment on his alternativ e. In the Newsweek poll released Saturday, there was a stunning turnaround of campaign fortunes. Bush had led 49 percent to 43 percent in mid-September; but in the three days after the debate, Kerry jumped to a 47 percent to 45 percent a dvantage. In other numerical words, Bush lost four points and Kerry gained the same–not a massive shift, but also no small change for this year of extreme polarization.

The poll’s internals were eye-opening. Men and women now narrowly favor Kerry, and the Democrat’s favorability ratings jumped sharply, to 52 percent positive and 40 percent negative. Bush’s numbers dropped to 49 p ercent favorable, 46 percent unfavorable, and his job approval rating was potentially deadly–46 percent approve, 48 percent disapprove. Unless President Bush’s job approval ratings soar solidly above 50 percent by Election Day , he will not win a second term; that much, history teaches without question.

Concerning the first debate, the viewing public clearly felt Kerry won, by a margin of over 3-to-1. Yes, the media echo chamber effect massively exaggerated Kerry’s victory, expanding a 15 percent victory margin into a 40 pe rcent margin. After all, when voters hear TV commentators say that Kerry won a hundred times, they defer to the supposedly superior wisdom of electronic experts. And indisputably, the media were anxious to make this contest more competitive for the final month. By 62 percent to 26 percent, viewers thought Kerry seemed more self confident and assured than the president. Overall, in advance of the debate, people had expected Bush to win easily and Kerry to d o poorly. Exactly the opposite happened, and many people on both sides of this contest were slack-jawed as a result. Should Bush lose the election, Sept. 30 will be remembered as a key turning point: a night when Bush could hav e put Kerry away and instead produced perhaps the worst debate performance in his career. It wasn’t so much a failure of Bush’s travel-tested arguments, but rather his un-presidential slouching onto the podium, and his eye-glazing, over-repetit ion of the same hackneyed phrases. Also, let’s not forget those odd facial expressions during the cutaways. Now we see why the Bush team wanted them banned! Finally, the expectations game, which had always favored Bush since his was consistently “misunder estimated,” backfired. For once, Bush was expected to win the debate by pundits and voters alike, and his inability to do so was magnified by that favorable expectation.

The Newsweek poll is just one survey, of course, and other polls may show somewhat different debate results–and almost certainly, there will be wildly disparate Bush v. Kerry horserace findings. But there is no quest ion that Bush is now behind the debate eight-ball. The President simply must win, at least on points, one of the remaining debates, or he will lose so much momentum to Kerry that the challenger’s current lead may harden. The presidential effort to triumph in a debate will not be easy. The Bush campaign thought he would dominate in the first clash, centered on his specialty–Iraq and foreign policy–so that Democratic morale would suffer further, and the audience would be reduced for the remaini ng two debates. Exactly the opposite is now true. The pressure on Bush is intense, Democrats are energized again, and the future debate audience will be large–if a bit smaller–for the remaining encounters. Even the Oct. 5 vice-presidential debate may take on added significance, given the sudden reversal of fortunes for the party tickets.

Bush has the unenviable task of doing reasonably well in two remaining debates where the odds are stacked against him. The town hall meeting, on October 8 in St. Louis, is not Bush’s cup of tea. Furthermore, even the Bush in ner circle acknowledges that the town hall format could easily produce a mugging of the President; most of the tough average citizen questions will certainly be directed at Bush, not Kerry–even if the selection of the average citizens has been fair and n o citizen has deceived the Gallup interrogators (which we doubt). It’s in the nature of the presidential job, one of the only disadvantages of incumbency. Voters will target the occupant of the White House for any deficiencies they see. Kerry m erely has to sit back, sympathize, and feel the pain of the complainants. The final debate, on Oct. 13 in Arizona, has a focus on domestic policies. Again, any Democrat would have a big edge, because ever since the New Deal and the Great Society, Democrats have been seen as more caring on the big issues of health care, education, the environment, and so on. (Democrats really are the nurturing, safety-net mommy party, with the Republicans the disciplinary, protective daddy party.) Bush starts this final debate dragging a 72-pound barbell–one pound for each year since FDR made Democrats the domestic goodie party.

Thus, Kerry is well positioned for a debate sweep. Bush must prevent this if he is to stabilize his campaign. Maybe the President will surprise us and beat those nasty expectations, just as Kerry did in the first debate. Bus h has two new advantages as he attempts to stop Kerry. First, the Kerry campaign can no longer credibly claim that the senator is not a substantial favorite to do better in the debates; thus, the expectations game once again favors Bush if the president can muster a decent showing. Second, on the morning of Oct. 8, before the St. Louis debate, the last significant jobs report before the election will be released in Washington. If the numbers are encouraging, they could create a booster rocket f or Bush that evening, giving the president good news to brag about. (Of course, if the numbers are disappointing, Kerry takes possession of the rocket.)

Perhaps Bush’s best strategy for the final debates is to become much more aggressive, pressing Kerry hard on his liberal positions and alleged flip-flops. Similarly, Bush’s best hope–though the odds are against i t–is for a Kerry gaffe. (And the senator can certainly make them: “I actually voted forthe $87 billion before I voted against it.”) One thing’s for sure: President Bush had better come into his remaining encounters determined to do much better than he did last Thursday if he plans to have another four years in the White House. The Bush campaign, according to some reports, had been suffering from smug overconfidence. Well, there’s one ailment that’s been cured!

How did history do?

Several weeks ago, we outlined six lessons that history taught about presidential debates. Let’s briefly review them and see how many applied to the Sept. 30 debate:

  1. This is John Kerry’s greatest opportunity, as it is for every challenger to a presidential incumbent. Sure enough, this was Kerry’s shining moment, and it may or may not change the outcome. But everyone will rem ember Kerry’s victory in the first debate, and he may well have passed that critical presidential threshold then.
  2. There are no teleprompters, so there will be unscripted surprises, and these moments are often the ones remembered by the voters and history. The moderator, Jim Lehrer, asked no surprising questions, and there we re no memorable one-liners. Already, viewers have a hard time remembering any specific phrase or sentence from the debate. Had President Bush been able to come up with one, he might have reversed the popular judgment that he lost.
  3. Debates do have an effect on some undecided voters and persuadable voters. At least some early polls are proving our point here. Winning a debate has consequences, and so does losing. Yet the finality of this is uncertain. Should Kerry sweep the debates, though, he will be on track to win the White House.
  4. At least as important is the effect on partisans. Just look at the Democratic crowds and their reactions to Kerry in the days following the debates. There is an electricity that was almost totally absent in the p rior week. Interviewee after interviewee has said some version of the following on television: “I had been losing hope, but now I’m charged up and ready for victory!”
  5. Every moment counts. Someone should have reminded President Bush about his father looking at his watch in 1992–or he should have remembered Gore’s sighs in 2000. What goes around, comes around, and now Bush has to live forever with those famous surly cutaways.
  6. The news media spin can strongly influence voters, especially if there is a consensus winner and loser. Along with the 1976 “free Poland” debate that so badly hurt President Ford, the first 2004 debate will go down in history as one of the best examples of influential media spin–Bush supporters would say overkill. Bush has taken a massive beating in the press, probably worse than his sub-par performance actually deserved. But then, so did Gore in 2000. As u nfair as politics is, there’s a rough justice in our system over time.