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Pro-con question: Do debates matter?

By By Dianna Wray - DWRAY@VICAD.COM
Oct. 21, 2012 at 5:21 a.m.
Updated Oct. 22, 2012 at 5:22 a.m.


The presidential debates are watched by millions, looked on as something akin to a sporting event by some and fiercely debated by the watchers after they are done.

The first official televised debate showed John F. Kennedy and Richard Nixon addressing the country and each other in 1960, and since 1976, presidential debates have become a routine part of the election season.

These debates have influenced elections and provided memorable moments in history - Kennedy getting a boost in the polls because of Nixon's scruffy mug on the screen; Gerald Ford telling Jimmy Carter the Soviet Union wasn't a threat; Ronald Reagan's ease in front of the camera compared to Carter.

But are the presidential debates important? Do current debates have an impact on the presidential election?

FINAL ROUND

The third and final debate starts at 8 p.m. tonight.

The presidential debates are important because they can influence the outcome of the elections.

"It's to get some feel for these individuals as people, and that's a big part of the choice process for the average American, just their gut reaction," said Bruce Buchanan, a professor of government specializing in presidential politics at the University of Texas at Austin.

The debates are one of the main opportunities people will use to get to know the candidates because it gives them a chance to compare them and what they are proposing for the country, Buchanan said.

"The key difference between campaign rallies and advertisements, on the one hand, and an argument like this is you have the best chance you're going to get at who these people really are," he said.

Despite all the time candidates spend preparing, there is an emotional spontaneity to the debates that can't be controlled, and it's in these revealing moments that voters may glimpse the real person behind the candidate, Buchanan said.

Micah Baylor, of Victoria, said watching Barack Obama and Mitt Romney is important to him because that's where he sees the real person. While each candidate can make their statements on the campaign trail, seeing them argue their viewpoints in the same room is essential. Presidential campaigns without debates would be like watching a wrestling match where the wrestlers never actually step into the ring, Baylor said.

"They can yell at each other from their own sides all they want, but on live TV they have to be on their game," he said.

The debates definitely shape how the candidates will be viewed by the public, but it's also possible that they can have an impact on the outcome of the election, especially if it is close race, Buchanan said.

Gaylon Jones, of Victoria, agreed that the debates are like a competition where candidates have the chance to win the debate and thus more voters.

"It's a competition, and people will generally lean toward the side that represents their views, but when they argue against each other it's easy to see who knows what they're talking about," Jones said.

In a close election, the debates can shift those key deciding votes, Buchanan said.

"For example, this race could end just like it was going to before the debates, a close race with one of the candidates winning by one or two points," he said. "People could look at that and say, 'Why bother with the debates?' but what is harder to measure is what could happen because of the debates. We could have wild swings back and forth before the final outcome of the election."

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