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Through the Viewers' Eyes

Journalists tend to look upon debates as decisive encounters that produce a winner and a loser and which can be decided by a single dramatic statement-an artful sound bite or inexplicable blunder. This perspective is not necessarily wrong, but it is decidedly journalistic. Most viewers experience the debate in a different way.

As a debate unfolds, viewers tend to render two judgments. One is whether the candidates seem "big enough" to occupy the presidency. The second is whether one of the candidates is the better choice.

  Table 2: How likely is it that the debates could change your mind?
(committed voters only)
  All Democrats Republicans Independents
Very 3% 5% 2% 3%
Somewhat 14% 12% 11% 22%
Not at all 83% 83% 88% 75%

These judgments could affect the outcome of the 2000 campaign. The race is close, and the number of undecided or weakly committed voters is relatively high. Among respondents in our recent poll who say they currently back either Bush or Gore, 18% claimed that it was very or somewhat likely that the debates could change their mind about which candidate to support. Self-identified independents were more likely than either Democrats or Republicans to say that the debates might lead them to switch their vote (see Table 2).

The debates are even more important in the minds of uncommitted voters. Thirty-nine percent of them claim that they are looking toward the debates as a time to make their decision.

  Table 3: Are you more interested in seeing George Bush or Al Gore in the debates?
  All Democrats Republicans Independents
Bush 15% 8% 29% 10%
Gore 15% 26% 8% 11%
Both Equally 61% 61% 57% 64%

Both candidates will be carefully scrutinized. When our respondents were asked "Are you more interested in seeing how George W. Bush or Al Gore handles himself in the debate, or are you equally interested in the performance of both candidates?" a clear majority 61 percent claimed they intended to pay equal attention to both candidates (see Table 3). Fourteen percent said they planned to watch Bush more closely and 15% said they would focus on Gore. Americans have a lot of unanswered questions about both candidates, and they intend to use the debates as a time to resolve some of them.

Are the Candidates "Big Enough" to Be President?

It is often said that the outcome of a televised debate rests on "image" that it rewards the candidate who appears more confident and has the more compelling appearance and delivery. Like many claims about televised politics, this claim is at best a half-truth. Viewers do respond favorably to a poised and artful candidate, but they are looking for something deeper-an indication that a candidate is "big enough" for the presidency.

There is no precise set of standards for this judgment, which is why it is partly a visceral reaction and is colored by partisanship-loyal Democrats and Republicans can usually convince themselves that their party's nominee meets the test. But it's a real test nonetheless. Voters expect a presidential candidate to have the characteristics they admire in a president. Does the candidate have the proper temperament, stature, knowledge, and style? Does the candidate appear "presidential?"

It's a critical test, but it's also an inexact one, which is a reason why most candidates pass it. If he had been running for president and not vice president in 1988, Dan Quayle would have been among the few to fail. Squaring off against Lloyd Bentsen, Quayle was widely perceived by viewers to lack the intellectual agility required of a president. Ross Perot in 1992 also failed the test, even though his participation in the debates did strengthen his position in the polls. Viewers found in Perot an outlet for their dissatisfaction with the major parties, but they also concluded that Perot was not fully fit for the presidency. He was too blustery, too contentious, too folksy, and too plain. Michael Dukakis in 1988 passed the test narrowly, having failed to persuade viewers that he had the empathy that would enable him to understand their problems fully.

For a candidate who meets the test, the result is enhanced stature and credibility, although not necessarily a surge in the polls. Mondale's debate performance in 1984 won viewers' admiration but did not endanger Reagan's reelection. Most viewers thought Mondale "won" the first debate but continued to believe that Reagan would be the better president.

The favorable response to Mondale was heightened by a pre-debate expectation that he would perform less well than his opponent. For the same reason, George W. Bush will enter Tuesday's debate with a psychological advantage. In our survey, by a margin of 45% to 29%, respondents felt that Gore is likely to do "a better job" than Bush in the debate (see Table 4).

  Table 4: Which candidate do you think will do better in the debates?
  All Democrats Republicans Independents
Bush 30% 9% 61% 28%
Gore 46% 72% 19% 42%
Both Equally 7% 7% 5% 9%

Past debates suggest, however, that Bush will have to deliver a "presidential" performance to convert his psychological advantage into a real one. A lackluster performance would confirm doubts that some voters harbor about his ability and a Quayle-like effort would likely doom his candidacy. Gore is also at risk. Because he is expected to dominate, he needs to perform at a level equal or higher to Bush, or his weaker performance will be magnified.

Of greater risk to Gore, however, may be his tendency in debate to attack his opponent. Second-by-second analyses of recent presidential debates reveal that viewers' most negative reactions occur when a candidate is in attack mode. A candidate can contrast his own views with those of his opponent and can sometimes succeed in attack by using humor to soften the blow. But a debate strategy based on strong and repeated attacks tends to repel viewers. Our research on the 2000 campaign's primary election debates confirms the generalization: of the dozen debates we studied, the one that viewers liked least by far was the Gore-Bradley encounter in New York City. It was also the most contentious of the debates we examined, and most viewers claimed that the debate had diminished their opinion of Gore. The debating style that Gore displayed during his New York primary debate and in his NAFTA and vice-presidential debates could work against him if he employs it in Tuesday night's presidential debate. Viewers expect a presidential candidate to act "presidential," which includes proper decorum.

Gore or Bush might fail to reach the viewers' threshold of acceptability for a would-be president in Tuesday's debate, but it's unlikely. The candidates are months-deep into their campaigns, have spent long hours rehearsing for Tuesday's debate, and have been briefed on the do's and don'ts of debating.2 Unless one of them gets stage fright or begins to panic under the pressure, viewers' response to the two candidates will hinge largely on how they answer a second question: Which candidate is the better choice?

Which Candidate Is the Better Choice?

Televised debates naturally seem to direct attention to the candidates' images. In the first minutes, viewers are indeed closely attentive to the way the candidates look and act. But as the debate unfolds, issues come to the fore and, in the end, tend to have a greater impact on viewers' response to the candidates.

Second-by-second debate analyses indicate that the audience responds most favorably to the candidates when they are talking about an issue that people care deeply about and are able to frame their position in a way that shows they understand why people are concerned about the issue.3 Even though journalists dismiss most debate issues as old news, most viewers are not highly informed about the issues and rarely have the opportunity to listen at length to what the candidates have to say about the issues.

As a debate unfolds issue by issue, viewers keep something akin to a running tab on what the candidates are saying. After the debate is over, most viewers have difficulty describing in detail what the candidates have said, but they have no difficulty answering the question: "Which candidate came closer to expressing your views on the issues?" Their answers to this question more than their answers to the question "Who won?" are closely related to their voting intention.

Both candidates will have numerous opportunities in the debate to discuss issues that are of concern to viewers and that will supply them with new information. In the Shorenstein Center weekly national polls, we have been tracking Americans' awareness of the candidates' positions on a dozen issues and, even though the campaign has been going on for months, most people have only a limited amount of information of Bush and Gore's positions.

The fact that most people are not highly informed about the issues may work to Gore's advantage. Gore's policy positions are generally closer than Bush's to those of most voters. Indeed, Gore has tended to gain support in the polls when issues are at the forefront of the campaign while Bush has done better during periods where the issues have been less prominent. Our surveys indicate that issues have receded recently in people's minds as the candidates' gaffes have dominated news coverage. Bush has strengthened his position in the polls during this period. The debate offers Gore an opportunity to get people thinking again about issues, just as he did to considerable effect during the Democratic convention.

Can the Debates Be Strengthened? >>

2. In this regard, a reason why Dole did not attack Clinton aggressively in the 1996 debates was the knowledge that it would almost certainly cost him the debate.

3. When one or more of these elements is missing, the viewer's reaction tends to be weaker. That's why, for example, viewers of the second Ford-Carter debate in 1976 took little notice of Ford's remark on Eastern Europe. It was not an issue that viewers cared about. Only after the news media made his remark the focus of its post-debate coverage, and portrayed it as a blunder, did the public attach importance to it.

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