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Why That Crappy Presidential Debate Won't Change Anyone's Mind

With only a sliver of the electorate undecided on its candidate, the 2012 debates are not about persuading voters.
 
 
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This piece has been updated.

By most accounts, Wednesday night’s presidential debate was one of the worst anybody could remember. Moderator Jim Lehrer, anchor of the PBS NewsHour, seemed largely absent, President Barack Obama brought little fight to the game, and Republican challenger Mitt Romney, the former Massachusetts governor, presented a pile of lies that were left either unchallenged or ineffectively countered.

Add to that the barrage of numbers issued by each candidate, and you have the recipe for a very boring and dispiriting debate. And it was.

This first presidential debate in a series of three (heaven help us), which took place at  the Magness Arena on the campus of the University of Denver, probably didn’t change many minds. Election 2012 finds a more highly polarized electorate than normal; only 6 percent or so of voters are deemed “persuadable” by pollsters, and it’s unlikely that a majority of those undecided voters were even watching the debate.

On our highly polarized political landscape, debates are fought for the amusement of media industrial complex, and not for the voters. It’s part of the media’s jobs program for campaign consultants and former consultants who become ubiquitous on television as “expert” interpreters of what viewers witnessed on the debate stage.

But the narrative of the debate that is crafted by the media could have an effect -- not on voters’ determination of their preferred candidate, but on turnout. Unless the president steps up his game in the next two debates, those “likely voters” who tend to side with him just might decide not to show up on election day, because right now the two themes taking shape in the narrative are that the president lost the debate, and, thanks to the current craze for instant fact-checking, that Romney is a big old liar.

Of those two themes, only the first one is news. Fact-checker upon fact-checker has revealed many of Romney's claims, made throughout the campaign, to be untrue, so, big whup. That's the way the news business works.

Snap polls give Romney a big win

And that’s why devices such as CNN’s “snap” poll matter. Corporate media need to make even the most boring of political events seem exciting; how else will they get viewers to tune in? So instant polls of viewers’ reaction, along with on-screen dial scores of real-time focus groups have become regular features of television debate coverage. But what if the poll sample is just plain wrong?

At the Daily Kos, the blogger who writes as The Silver Monkey took a look at the internals (PDF - page 8) of CNN’s snap poll, which found that 67 percent of those watching the debate declared Romney the winner -- the highest percentage for a single candidate in any of their snap polling of previous debates. But look behind the curtain, and one finds the poll’s respondents to be nearly all white, Southern and over 50. Non-whites were so statistically insignificant as to register as “not applicable” when the numbers were assessed by race, as were samples of respondents from other regions of the country. Do they really believe that the numbers of northeasterners who watched the debate were next to nil -- or do they have a bad poll? UPDATE: The folks at the TPM, which keeps a close watch on polls say that CNN has shared more information with them, and the make-up of the polling sample used by CNN seems to be "very much line with normal standards for randomized sampling."

In contrast, the CBS News snap poll of uncommitted voters showed 46 percent calling the debate for Romney, 32 percent calling it a tie, and 22 percent for Obama. The CNN poll did not specify its sample as uncommitted voters.

 
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