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Candidates know it: debates make a difference

It has been repeatedly argued that debates rarely change the momentum of a presidential campaign. The 2000 election pitting Al Gore against George Bush forced us to reconsider the importance of each solitary vote. The debates of 2004 will likely do the same for these televised exchanges of ideas.
While news media commonly say debates effect little change in a presidential race, several examples to the contrary usually enter in the same discussion.
The first time presidential nominees of two major parties debated was in 1960 when John F. Kennedy faced Richard Nixon. The first debate in the series showed the powerful, though sometimes superficial, influence of television when Nixon’s flu-influenced pallor and lack of makeup literally paled in comparison to Kennedy.
Nixon won the radio audience. Kennedy won the far bigger television audience.
There were no debates during the next three elections because incumbents didn’t want to give up any advantage. Their supporters in Congress gave them an excuse for declining to debate by maintaining an equal time provision which would require even minor candidates be allowed to participate.

The second debate would not occur again until 1976 when Jimmy Carter benefited from a miscue by incumbent Gerald Ford, who said, ‘There is no Soviet domination of Eastern Europe.’ Ford was given an opportunity to correct the statement during the debate but did not.

The trial attorney experience of candidate John Edwards wasn’t as much of a hurdle for Vice President Dick Cheney’s polished delivery as anticipated, but actor-turned-president Ronald Reagan’s skill as an orator proved insurmountable for Jimmy Carter and later for Walter Mondale.
Michael Dukakis cooled audiences with indifference in 1988. Bill Clinton warmed them back up with empathy in 1992.
As for third party candidates, most don’t meet the Commission on Presidential Debates’ criteria to participate. Candidates must be on enough ballots to have a mathematical chance to win in the electoral college, and they must have at least 15 percent of public support as determined by selected opinion polls.
And for the Democratic and Republican nominees, maybe it’s just coincidence that the candidate perceived as more effective, or less ineffective, during the debates is most often the winner of the election.
Most experts believe debates only reaffirm voters’ opinions. After watching as members of the Kerry and Bush campaigns said their respective candidate dominated in each of the first two debates, this theory certainly seems plausible.
But there are also the undecided. And while candidates seek to bolster their base, they also aim for voters whose allegiance is unconfirmed.
According to debate executive director Janet Brown, debates are consistently cited in exit polls as one of the most important factors influencing voters’ decisions.
The last of three presidential debates airs tonight. Will it be important in determining the outcome?
With candidates running within the margin of error, an incumbent who can be simultaneously polarizing and charismatic, and direct assaults on both men’s records, this will likely be a very television-friendly climax.
Throw into the mix a variety of spin-off coverage ranging from morning talk shows to late-night monologues, all of which amount to free advertising, and tonight’s debate will encourage at least a few newcomers to join in choosing the president of the United States.
Debates do make a difference. And, coming down the stretch, this debate may be one of the most significant ever. The world is watching.