- The Washington Times - Wednesday, September 29, 2004

Millions of voters will watch or listen to the first of three presidential debates tonight, a quadrennial campaign ritual we are told could very well decide the election.

I know I am a minority of one among my colleagues in the news and punditry business on this, but have never believed the debates have had much, if any a substantive, impact on who is elected president.

They have been, as now, heavily promoted, deeply discussed and endlessly analyzed by the chattering class that lives off covering political campaigns. But there is little or no evidence they in any way have been the deciding factor in how the majority of people vote on Election Day.

I know of no exit poll or postelection poll that found a large and decisive number of people who said the debates determined how they voted. We know people vote on the basis of the economy’s performance, on war and peace, on social or cultural issues, even how one or the other candidate appears to them in the campaign — decisive, indecisive, strong or weak.

But to say an election can turn on what is said or unsaid in one of the televised debates — even on the performance and appearance of the candidates — is rather a stretch, I think.

The first presidential debates between Vice President Richard Nixon and Sen. John F. Kennedy in 1960 made for riveting television. Kennedy looked cool and in command of his facts and Nixon, it was said, looked pale and haggard, suffering from a knee injury. In the end, though, it was one of the closest elections in history, and to this day many think Nixon won that election (despite an overwhelming Democratic voter registration advantage). The outcome had more to do with the mysterious appearance of dubious ballots in Cook County, Ill., and in Texas than in anything said in their debates.

One of the worst performances in any presidential debate occurred between President Gerald Ford and former Georgia Gov. Jimmy Carter in 1976 when Mr. Ford declared Poland not under Soviet domination in the Cold War. But Mr. Ford actually closed the gap in the polls in ensuing weeks and lost the election by an eyelash, a victim of severe inflation and the residue of the Republicans’ Watergate scandal, not his blunder in the debates.

To this day, many analysts still insist it was Ronald Reagan’s “there you go again” remark in his debate with President Carter that clinched the election for him. That comment certainly belittled Mr. Carter and lifted Mr. Reagan in the eyes of many voters, but the election outcome was dictated by a weakening economy tumbling into a recession, the hostage crisis in Iran and the overwhelming view the U.S. had become a helpless giant against Soviet expansionism.

The best example of all that the debates do not matter came in 1984, after President Reagan’s disastrous performance against former Vice President Walter Mondale. He was sharper in the second debate and had a ready crack about not exploiting Mr. Mondale’s “youth and inexperience” but Mr. Mondale clearly won the first debate and was on the whole sharper in the second, too.

However, Mr. Reagan’s surprisingly poor performance did not hurt him when the voters went to the polls. He won 49 states and Mr. Mondale barely carried his own.

After experiencing the worst recession since the Great Depression, Americans voted their pocketbooks and against Mr. Mondale’s dopey plan to raise their taxes in the midst of an economic recovery.

By and large, voters base their decisions on big overriding issues, not on one or two clever remarks, even mistakes, in a TV debate. They have already seen how the two major candidates performed over months of campaigning by the time of the autumn debates and most have already decided. This is certainly the case in tonight’s debate. Polls show a tiny 3 percent remains undecided.

Neither President Bush nor Sen. John Kerry is likely to spring anything new on the voters in this debate. Mr. Bush will stick to his war policies of staying the course in Iraq and “finishing the job” before getting out. Mr. Kerry will repeat his latest position that Mr. Bush “rushed into war” and has made the U.S. more vulnerable to terrorist attacks. Each will no doubt attack the other, as they have done for months.

Campaign analysts will watch to see if either candidate commits some dreadful blunder or delivers a cutting, memorable remark against his opponent. If that happens, there will no doubt be endless political analysis and video replays of it in days to come. But will that affect the outcome of an election that revolves around the war on terrorism and America’s homeland security? I don’t think so.

Donald Lambro, chief political correspondent of The Washington Times, is a nationally syndicated columnist.

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