In Our Opinion: Do presidential debates really provide an even platform?


September 20, 2012

It's widely argued as to what extent the presidential debates play in the eventual outcome of an election.

One side of history, at least that which has been studied and measured by the Gallup organization – as famous for their polls as Idaho is potatoes – say debates are rarely “game changers,” a 2008 Wall Street Journal article suggested.

With the exception of two times – 1960 and again in 2000 where a small movement in the public opinion generated by the debate cycle could have helped dictate the outcome – the face off between candidates is said to have been a relative non-factor.

John F. Kennedy entered his 1960 debates with Richard M. Nixon down a point but emerged with a 4-percent bump and he won a narrow victory.

Then in 2000, George W. Bush entered the debates with Vice President Al Gore eight points down but enjoyed a 4-point lead when they were done. Bush lost the national popular vote – one of only four times in U.S. history – by 543,816, but won the Electoral College battle in controversial fashion with the awarding of Florida's 25 electoral votes by that state's supreme court.

So it remains to be seen what – or if – the three presidential debates will have come Nov. 6. The presidential debates between President Barack Obama and challenger Mitt Romney take place Oct. 3 in Denver, at Hofstra University in Hempstead, N,Y. Oct. 16 and conclude Oct. 22 in Boca Raton, Fla. An Oct. 11 showdown in Danville, Ky. features vice presidential opponents Joe Biden and Rep. Paul Ryan.

But if these candidate forums, presented by the Commission on Presidential Debates, are to have that rare real effect when it comes to changing the minds of voters, then perhaps the selection of, and potential political leanings of the moderators, might be worthy of at least study, if not concern.

Only mainstream-media names: PBS newsman Jim Lehrer, who has anchored debates for decades; Bob Schieffer, host of CBS's “Face the Nation” and a debate regular for years; plus relative newcomers, CNN anchor, Candy Crowley and Martha Radditz senior foreign affairs correspondent of ABC News anchor the events.

There may be those who argue, or think it doesn't matter what a reporter's political leaning does or does not have to do with how a debate is conducted. But in recent years the line between reporting and editorializing sometimes has been seriously blurred.

Some will insist there is no such thing as media bias, but it does exist, and checking allegiances at the door is difficult to do.

Efforts to find out from the commission questions such as the procedure for selection of anchors, or how and who develops questions were met with the standard email response that starts: “Because of the high volume of requests we cannot....” So much of what the commission does and how it works remains a mystery.

Aside from the potential in the future of adding in a more conservative-leaning voice like a Bill O'Reilly, one thought to shake up the way debates are presented would be to have one anchored by “Joe Citizen.” An application process could be implemented that could really engage the public; maybe even make them more interested in the political process.

The League of Women Voters, longtime sponsors of debates in 1976, 1980 and 1984, ended their involvement in 1987 in protest of major party candidates trying to dictate micro-manage how the debates were staged.

The commission was then formed and has not only coordinated political debates in this country, but has been called upon worldwide as experts in the process.

However, despite the changes in who runs the debates, one has to wonder if indeed much has changed in the last 25 years.


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