What presidential debates do

Tonight is the final presidential candidate debate.  Help me live-blog it tonight at 9:00 p.m. ET.

I think the significance of the debates is not so much whether one candidate scores more points than another, zings his opponent more effectively, or makes or avoids gaffes.  What the debates do for us voters is to allow us to see the two candidates side by side.  We can also hear them unfiltered by the news media, the punditocracy, or political advertising.  What the public wants to see is whether or not the two candidates are articulate, intelligent, can think on their feet, can master a host of complicated facts and information.  Granted, being able to do all of that will not make a person a good president.  But the absence of those traits is, for most people, a disqualifier.  Notice how so many of the candidates in the Republican primary could not measure up to those relatively simple standards.

Mitt Romney has benefited from the debates because, in the comparison with Barack Obama, he has emerged as presidential, someone who comes across, at least, as equal to the current president.  So he has become, in many voters’ mind, a plausible candidate.  He didn’t really seem that way in the scrum of the primary, but now he does.

I know, scholars have made the case that debates don’t matter, that polls don’t matter, that campaigns don’t matter.  They have said that the economy is all that matters.  But this time we are seeing that the economy may not matter either; otherwise, Romney would be running away with the election.  The point is, no one can predict the outcome with certainty, any more than a mere mortal–Biblical prophets excepted– can predict any other future event.

By the way, I am not backing off my mere-mortal-and-thus-uncertain prediction that Obama will win, even as Romney rises in the polls.  I think Obama still has an advantage in the electoral college.  But, as is so often the case, I will be glad to be wrong.

About Gene Veith

Professor of Literature at Patrick Henry College, the Director of the Cranach Institute at Concordia Theological Seminary, a columnist for World Magazine and TableTalk, and the author of 18 books on different facets of Christianity & Culture.

  • Steve Billingsley

    Presidential elections in tough economic times when there is an incumbent are essentially a referendum on the on the incumbent. Obama’s campaign strategy has been to render Romney an unacceptable alternative, because his own record would just get him beat. What the first debate essentially did is give Romney the opportunity to show that he isn’t the combination of Scrooge McDuck, Thurston Howell III and Dr. Evil that he has been portrayed as being by the Obama campaign. He had to pass the “plausibility test”. Enough voters felt that he was plausible, acceptable President that it changed the dynamics of the campaign and put Obama back on his heels and thus far he hasn’t been able to recover.

    This is Obama’s last chance to regain control of the campaign. If he doesn’t, he will lose. That is my humble opinion/prediction.

  • Steve Billingsley

    Presidential elections in tough economic times when there is an incumbent are essentially a referendum on the on the incumbent. Obama’s campaign strategy has been to render Romney an unacceptable alternative, because his own record would just get him beat. What the first debate essentially did is give Romney the opportunity to show that he isn’t the combination of Scrooge McDuck, Thurston Howell III and Dr. Evil that he has been portrayed as being by the Obama campaign. He had to pass the “plausibility test”. Enough voters felt that he was plausible, acceptable President that it changed the dynamics of the campaign and put Obama back on his heels and thus far he hasn’t been able to recover.

    This is Obama’s last chance to regain control of the campaign. If he doesn’t, he will lose. That is my humble opinion/prediction.

  • Jack

    I have known for some time how I am going to vote for office candidates, and MN constitutional questions. There is nothing that anyone can say or do, now that will change my mind.

    I will be watching the Giants/Cardinals game, rooting for the Giants.

  • Jack

    I have known for some time how I am going to vote for office candidates, and MN constitutional questions. There is nothing that anyone can say or do, now that will change my mind.

    I will be watching the Giants/Cardinals game, rooting for the Giants.

  • Trey

    “By the way, I am not backing off my mere-mortal-and-thus-uncertain prediction that Obama will win, even as Romney rises in the polls. I think Obama still has an advantage in the electoral college. But, as is so often the case, I will be glad to be wrong.”

    You may not be backing off, but you are laying the foundation:) I think you are wrong about the economy. The “experts” say the economy is always the ace in the hole.

    The RCP average polls have Romney up: http://www.realclearpolitics.com/epolls/2012/president/2012_elections_electoral_college_map.html
    Nationally Romney is up too: http://www.gallup.com/poll/157817/election-2012-likely-voters-trial-heat-obama-romney.aspx

  • Trey

    “By the way, I am not backing off my mere-mortal-and-thus-uncertain prediction that Obama will win, even as Romney rises in the polls. I think Obama still has an advantage in the electoral college. But, as is so often the case, I will be glad to be wrong.”

    You may not be backing off, but you are laying the foundation:) I think you are wrong about the economy. The “experts” say the economy is always the ace in the hole.

    The RCP average polls have Romney up: http://www.realclearpolitics.com/epolls/2012/president/2012_elections_electoral_college_map.html
    Nationally Romney is up too: http://www.gallup.com/poll/157817/election-2012-likely-voters-trial-heat-obama-romney.aspx

  • Cincinnatus

    Let me repeat my prediction, which is now of a sturdy two-years’ vintage at least:

    Romney will win the popular vote, in keeping with the structural political phenomena that determine most electoral outcomes (this year, the economy is front and center, but no scholars suggest that “only” the economy matters; in 2004, national defense mattered, and Republicans are more “trusted” with that issue, regardless of who is running).

    The mechanics of the electoral college are different and, as its critics correctly note, undemocratic. I expect the count to be close, such that the election may very well come down to a state like Iowa (6 electoral voters) or Wisconsin (10). Even if Romney solidly takes the popular vote.

  • Cincinnatus

    Let me repeat my prediction, which is now of a sturdy two-years’ vintage at least:

    Romney will win the popular vote, in keeping with the structural political phenomena that determine most electoral outcomes (this year, the economy is front and center, but no scholars suggest that “only” the economy matters; in 2004, national defense mattered, and Republicans are more “trusted” with that issue, regardless of who is running).

    The mechanics of the electoral college are different and, as its critics correctly note, undemocratic. I expect the count to be close, such that the election may very well come down to a state like Iowa (6 electoral voters) or Wisconsin (10). Even if Romney solidly takes the popular vote.

  • DonS

    The first debate was a game-changer, in that it was the impetus in helping many voters determine that Romney was sufficiently presidential to deserve their vote. There are virtually no credible polls that have not measured that decisive shift toward Romney, no matter what their raw numbers show. The mood of the country, and the actions of each campaign organization during the past few weeks, demonstrate the fact that Romney is ahead.

    The second debate, though declared to be a “narrow” win for Obama, turned the conversation in the mainstream media, at long last, to Benghazi, as I predicted last week. Obama’s campaign is spinning furiously, unable to focus on anything but refutation that the Obama administration is not a lying, corrupted organization. The foreign donations scandal now enveloping the campaign is not at all helpful.

    This third debate will not be decisive. The cake is baked. Romney’s job now is to be presidential. He does not have to “win” anything.

  • DonS

    The first debate was a game-changer, in that it was the impetus in helping many voters determine that Romney was sufficiently presidential to deserve their vote. There are virtually no credible polls that have not measured that decisive shift toward Romney, no matter what their raw numbers show. The mood of the country, and the actions of each campaign organization during the past few weeks, demonstrate the fact that Romney is ahead.

    The second debate, though declared to be a “narrow” win for Obama, turned the conversation in the mainstream media, at long last, to Benghazi, as I predicted last week. Obama’s campaign is spinning furiously, unable to focus on anything but refutation that the Obama administration is not a lying, corrupted organization. The foreign donations scandal now enveloping the campaign is not at all helpful.

    This third debate will not be decisive. The cake is baked. Romney’s job now is to be presidential. He does not have to “win” anything.

  • Cincinnatus

    DonS:

    Polls were trending to Romney before the first debate. At best, there is no way to prove that the debate had anything to do with Romney’s apparently rising popularity. There are so many intervening variables in play, and no social scientist would pronounce the conclusion you have.

  • Cincinnatus

    DonS:

    Polls were trending to Romney before the first debate. At best, there is no way to prove that the debate had anything to do with Romney’s apparently rising popularity. There are so many intervening variables in play, and no social scientist would pronounce the conclusion you have.

  • DonS

    Cincinnatus: As you know, I believed that the race was at least tied prior to the debates. The polls were cooked, for whatever reason (not because of “conspiracy”, imo) because of the unrealistic party id numbers they were showing (and some, like IBD-Tipp, are still showing). But there is no question there was a dramatic shift in them, some 3-5 points, beginning at the precise time of the first debate.

    In general, I tend to agree with your proposition that campaigns do little to change the trajectory of a political race. But, in this case, I do believe that the hundreds of millions of dollars Obama spent “defining” Romney early in the race through deeply personal and horribly false negative advertising had its effect. People wanted to vote against Obama, but needed a reason — they needed to know that the alternative they would be voting for could serve as a credible president. They saw that Romney was not the monster he had been painted to be in the first debate. That was all they needed.

    Can I prove that? No. But what else explains the sudden shift in the polls, showing Romney surging into the lead?

  • DonS

    Cincinnatus: As you know, I believed that the race was at least tied prior to the debates. The polls were cooked, for whatever reason (not because of “conspiracy”, imo) because of the unrealistic party id numbers they were showing (and some, like IBD-Tipp, are still showing). But there is no question there was a dramatic shift in them, some 3-5 points, beginning at the precise time of the first debate.

    In general, I tend to agree with your proposition that campaigns do little to change the trajectory of a political race. But, in this case, I do believe that the hundreds of millions of dollars Obama spent “defining” Romney early in the race through deeply personal and horribly false negative advertising had its effect. People wanted to vote against Obama, but needed a reason — they needed to know that the alternative they would be voting for could serve as a credible president. They saw that Romney was not the monster he had been painted to be in the first debate. That was all they needed.

    Can I prove that? No. But what else explains the sudden shift in the polls, showing Romney surging into the lead?

  • Jeff

    I think Romney is going to win the popular vote handily. I am afraid that he will lose the electoral college. It would be horrible if he were to win the popular vote by seven points but lose the electoral college.

  • Jeff

    I think Romney is going to win the popular vote handily. I am afraid that he will lose the electoral college. It would be horrible if he were to win the popular vote by seven points but lose the electoral college.

  • DonS

    Jeff @ 8: To ease your mind, there is no real-world way that a candidate could win the popular vote by more than a fraction and still lose the electoral college. Moreover, it is much more likely that the Democratic candidate would do so than the Republican candidate. This is because the Democrats tend to run up huge majorities in the blue states, whereas Republican red state margins tend to be lower and involve lower vote totals.

    If Romney wins the popular vote, by any margin, he will win the electoral college.

  • DonS

    Jeff @ 8: To ease your mind, there is no real-world way that a candidate could win the popular vote by more than a fraction and still lose the electoral college. Moreover, it is much more likely that the Democratic candidate would do so than the Republican candidate. This is because the Democrats tend to run up huge majorities in the blue states, whereas Republican red state margins tend to be lower and involve lower vote totals.

    If Romney wins the popular vote, by any margin, he will win the electoral college.

  • Cincinnatus

    DonS@9:

    I’m not sure I agree with either of the two claims you make, but the first is especially puzzling:

    Why is there no “real-world” way a candidate could win the populate vote by a fairly large margin but lose the electoral college?

  • Cincinnatus

    DonS@9:

    I’m not sure I agree with either of the two claims you make, but the first is especially puzzling:

    Why is there no “real-world” way a candidate could win the populate vote by a fairly large margin but lose the electoral college?

  • DonS

    Cincinnatus, because politics is a momentum event. If the national consensus breaks sharply toward one candidate, the individual states will follow. There is a host of data showing how different states trend compared to national averages. The swing states a Republican needs to win (eg FL, OH, VA, NC, CO), especially given the advantages Republicans gained because of reapportionment, are all R+ states, meaning their popular vote totals are always more Republican than the total national vote total. If Romney wins the national popular vote, he will win those states.

  • DonS

    Cincinnatus, because politics is a momentum event. If the national consensus breaks sharply toward one candidate, the individual states will follow. There is a host of data showing how different states trend compared to national averages. The swing states a Republican needs to win (eg FL, OH, VA, NC, CO), especially given the advantages Republicans gained because of reapportionment, are all R+ states, meaning their popular vote totals are always more Republican than the total national vote total. If Romney wins the national popular vote, he will win those states.

  • L. H. Kevil

    Just a quick comment: I doubt that the ‘debates’ will give us anythhing resembling an unfiltered view of the two candidates. Everything they say will have been scripted and focus-group tested. This is sad, but inevitably a consequence of the stakes at play and just as the election will have a winner, so will the debate.

  • L. H. Kevil

    Just a quick comment: I doubt that the ‘debates’ will give us anythhing resembling an unfiltered view of the two candidates. Everything they say will have been scripted and focus-group tested. This is sad, but inevitably a consequence of the stakes at play and just as the election will have a winner, so will the debate.

  • Lou G.

    I’m sticking to MY original statement from about 10 months ago right here on this blog in the comments section, which was to advocate for Romney to win. At that time, I can assure you fellows, I stood alone on this blog in calling Romney the best bet. I remember quite vividly being skewered by one after another of you gentlemen here in these comments.

    I also sincerely doubt that anyone (here or elsewhere) has been saying for two years running that Romney will beat Obama in the election. Really, two years? I’d love to read such a predicition (from October 2010 or before) that Romney would win the election in 2012. Anyway…

    DonS: #7: just because you cannot prove your assertion with 100% certainty, you still make a valid point, since you have proved it with a reasoned defense — one that ought to convince most reasonable people beyond “reasonable doubt”. Therefore, let me say, I concur with your statements in #7! So far as the electoral college goes, fascinating as it may be, I simply haven’t had much interaction with it as of yet.

  • Lou G.

    I’m sticking to MY original statement from about 10 months ago right here on this blog in the comments section, which was to advocate for Romney to win. At that time, I can assure you fellows, I stood alone on this blog in calling Romney the best bet. I remember quite vividly being skewered by one after another of you gentlemen here in these comments.

    I also sincerely doubt that anyone (here or elsewhere) has been saying for two years running that Romney will beat Obama in the election. Really, two years? I’d love to read such a predicition (from October 2010 or before) that Romney would win the election in 2012. Anyway…

    DonS: #7: just because you cannot prove your assertion with 100% certainty, you still make a valid point, since you have proved it with a reasoned defense — one that ought to convince most reasonable people beyond “reasonable doubt”. Therefore, let me say, I concur with your statements in #7! So far as the electoral college goes, fascinating as it may be, I simply haven’t had much interaction with it as of yet.

  • Cincinnatus

    Lou G.@13:

    Uh, well, I’ve been saying that Romney would win for about 11 months, at least. That’s my prediction, and I’m sticking to it. In fact, for an assignment back in December, I had to provide a plausible, empirically-rooted election prediction for this November. I predicted that Romney would win a) the nomination and b) the election. I’m 1 for 1 so far.

    But the question of whether Romney is the “best” candidate is mostly (if not entirely) separate from the question of whether he can win. I maintain serious objections to Romney’s policy proposals and to his candidacy.

  • Cincinnatus

    Lou G.@13:

    Uh, well, I’ve been saying that Romney would win for about 11 months, at least. That’s my prediction, and I’m sticking to it. In fact, for an assignment back in December, I had to provide a plausible, empirically-rooted election prediction for this November. I predicted that Romney would win a) the nomination and b) the election. I’m 1 for 1 so far.

    But the question of whether Romney is the “best” candidate is mostly (if not entirely) separate from the question of whether he can win. I maintain serious objections to Romney’s policy proposals and to his candidacy.

  • Tom Hering

    Didn’t the Associated Press just do a story on rogue electors, and find five of them – all Ron Paul supporters – who expressed real doubts they could vote for Romney if he won their states? So there’s that. (Though I believe one of them resigned after the story broke.)

  • Tom Hering

    Didn’t the Associated Press just do a story on rogue electors, and find five of them – all Ron Paul supporters – who expressed real doubts they could vote for Romney if he won their states? So there’s that. (Though I believe one of them resigned after the story broke.)

  • Tom Hering
  • Tom Hering
  • SKPeterson

    Lou G. @ 13 – You may have stood alone 10 months ago saying Romney was the best bet (to win the nomination and the election). I don’t doubt that. He was the establishment darling from the beginning. But, if you were saying he’s the best thing for the nation, I’m afraid you get to stand up all by your lonesome on that score. Congratulations.

    My guess is that if elected he’ll prove to mostly be a shambles after a year or so. A little post-election bounce and then reality will set in. Part of that reality will be the recognition that Romney is only marginally more “free market” than Obama. IF Romney wins, I predict that we’ll start hearing lots of stories about how he’s a disappointment, not really conservative, and likely to lead the Republican Party into defeat in the mid-term elections during the summer of 2014.

  • SKPeterson

    Lou G. @ 13 – You may have stood alone 10 months ago saying Romney was the best bet (to win the nomination and the election). I don’t doubt that. He was the establishment darling from the beginning. But, if you were saying he’s the best thing for the nation, I’m afraid you get to stand up all by your lonesome on that score. Congratulations.

    My guess is that if elected he’ll prove to mostly be a shambles after a year or so. A little post-election bounce and then reality will set in. Part of that reality will be the recognition that Romney is only marginally more “free market” than Obama. IF Romney wins, I predict that we’ll start hearing lots of stories about how he’s a disappointment, not really conservative, and likely to lead the Republican Party into defeat in the mid-term elections during the summer of 2014.

  • Carl Vehse

    If it’s close in key electoral states it will go to the state courts, and from there up. Unfortunately the SCOTUS is no longer trustworthy.

  • Carl Vehse

    If it’s close in key electoral states it will go to the state courts, and from there up. Unfortunately the SCOTUS is no longer trustworthy.


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