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November 08, 2012 2:29 PM That First Debate, In Retrospect

By Ed Kilgore

You may recall that in the September/October issue of the Washington Monthly, George Washington University political scientist John Sides cited research showing that presidential debates are rarely decisive events, though 1960 and 2000 were probably exceptions.

So we asked Professor Sides to reconsider that judgment after Election Day, given the MSM consensus that the first debate between Barack Obama and Mitt Romney lifted the Republicans very nearly to the presidency.

His web-exclusive answer can be found here. The bottom line is that the Denver debate really didn’t much matter:

[A] few pundits seemed to think that the first debate had shown political science was wrong. But at the end, 2012 largely confirms prior research. Romney gained somewhere between 2-4 points after the first debate, which is in line with previous debate bumps. The 4-point swing is most visible in polling averages, but there is some evidence that it was smaller, maybe in the 1-2 point range. (Part of the swing may have been driven not by the people changing their minds, but by the changing composition of “likely voters,” as Republicans became more enthusiastic and likely to declare themselves likely to vote.)
But no matter the precise size of the swing, the first debate was not the end of the story. In my piece, I noted how the impact of a debate can be overtaken not only by subsequent debates but by subsequent events in the campaign. In 2012, the second and third debates — in which Obama was judged to have “won” by pluralities or majorities of voters — did not clearly shift the polls toward Obama. But they did illustrate how difficult it is for one candidate to run the table and win every debate. More common is that the candidates fight to a draw. The late movement toward Obama, which is visible in the Pollster national average, also suggests how later events can matter. Perhaps in this case it was Hurricane Sandy.

In other words, the game didn’t change; just some of the dynamics and a lot of the spin.

Ed Kilgore is a contributing writer to the Washington Monthly. He is managing editor for The Democratic Strategist and a senior fellow at the Progressive Policy Institute. Find him on Twitter: @ed_kilgore.

Comments

  • Craigo on November 08, 2012 2:34 PM:

    He makes a good point the bump was far smaller than it appeared - it coincided with pollsters switching to likely-voter screens which largely ovestimated the Republian vote. And the two pollsters who were most isible due to runnin daily trackers, Gallup and Rasmussen, just happened to be furthest from the mark.

  • howard on November 08, 2012 2:37 PM:

    ed, as you well know, having written about it many times, it was an operative assumption on the right that obama is an affirmative action phoney who doesn't know shite from shinola who would collapse in a heap of empty-suited sweat when confronted by a real man in debate.

    and to some degree - especially on the right - that's how the first debate was read.

    which i assumed meant that the poll bounce that romney got - as sides suggests here - was in good measure a reflection of an increased swagger factor, which translated into enthusiasm rather than some major changing of minds.

    (sadly for those in the fever swamps, obama's failure to collapse in debates 2 and 3 pretty much rendered the "obama's an affirmative action dope without a teleprompter to help him" line of attack moot.)

  • Werewolf on November 08, 2012 2:49 PM:

    I seem to recall a lot of anger in the comments here about "Obummer lost the election in the debate!1!1!1!" Sheesh.

  • BJ smith on November 08, 2012 2:58 PM:

    I agree entirely,I never understood how lying makes you a winner. When Romney backtracked on everything he said. It is probably closer that Obama was in shock, realizing that he would say exactly opposite of everything he said just the day before. Knowing Obama he was making notes for next time, thus the head down, not wanting to miss any lies. We have always known the teleprompter was just another Fox dumbism. It, in the end, could well have been the start of many people becoming aware of just how blantantly he lied, & the beginning of the end for Mr Romney. It is a very good feeling knowing so many were actually paying attention all the while.

  • BillFromPA on November 08, 2012 2:59 PM:

    My recollection of that seemingly long ago moment is that I sensed that the bad Obama debate let Romney back in the fight. To use a boxing metaphor, Obama was one solid left jab and a right hook away from ending the thing, but Romney's flurry of lies pulled out one round for him just when he needed it. Thankfully, as Obama once described himself, 'I'm skinny but I'm tough'.

  • BJ smith on November 08, 2012 3:00 PM:

    I agree entirely,I never understood how lying makes you a winner. When Romney backtracked on everything he said. It is probably closer that Obama was in shock, realizing that he would say exactly opposite of everything he said just the day before. Knowing Obama he was making notes for next time, thus the head down, not wanting to miss any lies. We have always known the teleprompter was just another Fox dumbism. It, in the end, could well have been the start of many people becoming aware of just how blantantly he lied, & the beginning of the end for Mr Romney. It is a very good feeling knowing so many were actually paying attention all the while.

  • Lance on November 08, 2012 3:01 PM:

    There was a HUGE effect of the Denver debate.

    Before the debate, conservative pundits and politicians were abandoning Romney and preparing to declare the election lost because he was:
    1) Too Moderate,
    2) Too bad a Campaigner,
    3) Too elite.

    After the election the conservatives claimed him as one of their own, and were still holding on right up to declaration of Ohio going to Obama.

    This dynamic, making the current 'abandonment' of Romney by the Right a transparent stupidity, is the only reason I can imagine for the Chicago Boys to SO BADLY PREPARE the President.

    They suckered the Right in, and now this is a defeat of the Right, and not just of Romney.

    For further proof that this is a defeat of the Right, see all the lost Senate races.

  • BJ smith on November 08, 2012 3:01 PM:

    I agree entirely,I never understood how lying makes you a winner. When Romney backtracked on everything he said. It is probably closer that Obama was in shock, realizing that he would say exactly opposite of everything he said just the day before. Knowing Obama he was making notes for next time, thus the head down, not wanting to miss any lies. We have always known the teleprompter was just another Fox dumbism. It, in the end, could well have been the start of many people becoming aware of just how blantantly he lied, & the beginning of the end for Mr Romney. It is a very good feeling knowing so many were actually paying attention all the while.

  • Samuel Knight on November 08, 2012 3:04 PM:

    Just like pollsters who make a mistake because of small samples, I'd say analysts who say that debates didn't have a big impact are making the same mistake. There just haven't been that many Presidential debates to create a statistically valid sample.

    And well, yes, I'd say the first debate was a stunning blow - undermining a whole picture of the opponent. Remember it was followed by 3 crushing defeats the other way. So yeah it didn't matter in the end - but not because it wasn't devastating. It was because it took a lot of hard work to get back.

  • antiquelt on November 08, 2012 3:15 PM:

    My question on the Denver debate; how do you win a debate with lies?

  • Paul Gottlieb on November 08, 2012 3:22 PM:

    The main effect of the first debate was the real damage that it did to the confidence of Obama's supporters. You could just feel the air go out of the balloon, and a very large enthusiasm gap opened up between the two candidates. The event that really stopped the bleeding was Bill Clinton's speech at the Democratic Convention. This was the powerful, confident defense of progressive values that we had all been waiting for, and you could literally see Democrats standing up straighter, with a renewed swagger after that speech.

  • dweb on November 08, 2012 3:26 PM:

    Hurricane Sandy....a truly amazing Obama ground game, and for added spice, a small boost of additional voters who turned out in anger after watching GOP efforts to suppress the rights of minorities to vote. You don't stand in line for eight hours in heat, cold and/or rain unless you are really really motivated.

  • CharlieM on November 08, 2012 3:36 PM:

    I'd disagree.

    I think that first debate DID make a difference. I think it woke up a lot of people (including Obama) that we may have gotten a little complacent.
    Before the debate (especially with the post-convention kick) I think we'd gotten a little too much "we got this" snugness. That debate in Denver shook us a little bit - enough to tell us we need to get off our butts and start working or else the Rethugs were going to take one from us.
    It spooked us. And provided the impetus to make sure we got out and "put it away" like what we had been telling ourselves the month prior to it.

  • Elie on November 08, 2012 3:57 PM:

    Uh - Paul upstring -- Clinton's speech at the Democratic Convention was BEFORE the first debate -- it was not what stopped "the bleeding" -- such as it was. I would say that the Vice Presidential debate and the good "performance" by Biden did that --

  • alapip on November 08, 2012 4:15 PM:

    A day or two before the first debate, I read, or heard someone say that the super-pac money might be funneled to the down ticket races, because it was looking like the Romney campaign was a lost cause. After Romney's 'win' in that debate, the pac money stayed with him, possibly allowing more Democratic Senate wins.

    i'm not saying that President Obama threw the debate, but, to hold onto the Senate, it would have been a logical strategy to consider. In office, he's proven to be logical, pragmatic and gutsy. (think OBL)

  • beejeez on November 08, 2012 4:58 PM:

    I'm still waiting for the real explanation behind President Obama's uncharacteristically wan performance in debate one. It could be simply that he's human, but he's already demonstrated consistent discipline, eloquence on the fly and confident deportment. Yes, everybody has a bad day, but usually there's a good reason. I suspect either physical discomfort like exhaustion, illness or stress, or a major mental distraction was involved. Now that the election is over and he can explain himself without sounding like he's making excuses, I'm hoping he'll level with us either directly or via a leak from someone who knew what's up. Sure did make me a nervous wreck until the last few days of the race.

  • Gary on November 08, 2012 5:07 PM:

    What does MSM mean? You know, 90% of the time the first captcha word is illegible. I just have to keep renewing until I see something I can read.

  • DisgustedWithItAll on November 08, 2012 5:14 PM:

    John Sides is wrong, and is only interested in defending a previous position. If Obama had showed up at the first debate completely ready to expose Mitt Romney and his campaign for what he was, the Presidency would have been decided that night. End of discussion.

    For all those interested, there's a column in the NYT talking about Obama and the first debate:

    http://www.nytimes.com/2012/11/08/us/politics/obama-campaign-clawed-back-after-a-dismal-debate.html?pagewanted=4&hp

  • T2 on November 08, 2012 5:25 PM:

    I believe the debate that mattered was the Biden/Ryan debate. There's no question that Dems were reeling from the Denver debate and the Media was all over it. Then Joe Biden jumps right on Golden Boy Paul Ryan and beats him up real bad. The Dems felt their ship had been righted and that the Lies of Romney/Ryan had, at long last, been called out for everyone to see. And what everyone saw was the difference between a young gasbag and a Vice President of the USA. Does anyone remember anything Ryan did after that?

  • Anonymous on November 09, 2012 4:17 AM:

    I too agree with commenter DisgustedWithItAll that Sides is simply defending his staked out position, which appears largely to be formulated on the basis of his gut and his experience, and not with clear and convincing measurements and evidence.

    And commenter Samuel Knight's point is a good one: there have really been too few presidential debates for which all of the meta-analysis has been completed for us to draw sharp conclusions.

    What does Dr. Sides say to the historically reported opinion that Nixon lost the debate with Kennedy (at least in the eyes of the television audience) and went on to lose the election?

    On a related note, there well may be a good reason that today's debates don't have a powerful impact on voter opinion: their very construction is geared towards muffling any impact. Even as recently as three decades ago, when the League of Women Voters largely ran the debates, there was a bit of bite to them. Now that the Debate Commission does so, the debates have been neutered as a voter's tool.