God bless presidential debates. God bless the spin rooms, the collections of inexplicably undecided voters corralled by the cable news networks and, most of all, Jim Lehrer. For theres no denying reality: Ever since theyve become a set part of the pageantry and narrative of our nations presidential elections, the debates have made for some truly legendary opportunities for drinking games.
Its true. Whether youre waiting to see how many times Sen. John McCain starts a phrase with My friends, Sen. Joe Biden fails to control himself from commenting on Sarah Palins attractiveness or Gov. Palin fires off a riff featuring a similitude that includes pitbulls, hockey moms and lipstick, I predict your night will be far more productive in the long run than those of Sens. Obama and McCain a prediction made safer by the fact that even the latter doesnt want to be at the debate, despite the fact that debates are one of the few opportunities available to losing campaigns to receive equal time and coverage.
Dont believe me? Think back to the last election and the first debate in which John Kerry dominated the President, forcing him to cry Poland until the colored lights came to his rescue. Thats completely forgotten now and the only episode that most observers could recall from the 2004 debates, if heavily prodded, is Kerrys feeble attempt late in the final debate to broach the topic of Dick Cheneys lesbian daughter.
The same holds true for practically every election. In 2000 Al Gores sighing, space-invading and Dingell-Norwood references failed to move significant swaths of voters one way or the other. In 1996 the debates were purposefully kept low-key by a Clinton campaign comfortable in its status as front-runner. The one modern debate that everyone loves to point to as genuinely influential, the 1976 contest between Gerald Ford and Jimmy Carter in which Ford seemingly denied the existence of a Soviet domination of Eastern Europe, didnt really change much; Ford had started the campaign insurmountably behind in the polls and his ability to keep gaining on Carter until Election Day remains one of the greatest near-collapses in election history.
In fact, most contemporary political junkies, raised on lore about the Lincoln-Douglas contests of 1858, would likely be surprised to learn how recent a phenomenon regular presidential debates actually are. After the Kennedy-Nixon contest in 1960 debates didnt make a return until 1976, and even in 1980 President Carter felt the events were unimportant enough to duck out of the first one. (Reagan and Independent candidate Congressman John Anderson of Illinois still met to debate each other in Baltimore; predictably, no one much noticed.) The first (and practically only) important modern presidential debate came in 1980, when Michael Dukakis answer of no, to Bernard Shaws question about whether he would demand the death penalty if his wife was raped and murdered, proved his lack of human emotion in the eyes of voters.
While polling following Fridays debate and all subsequent duels may fluctuate slightly either way depending on who wins, these numbers will inevitably be ephemeral. Now that Barack Obama has a lead as large as any that he held over the summer, who remembers that McCain spent about a week slightly ahead in every poll? To revisit 2004, that first debate swung the polling data by only about four and a half points, according to data compiled by Professor Tom Holbrook at the University of Wisconsin and that swing was quickly negated by the unconquerable reality of the campaign news cycle, in which yesterdays news might as well have occurred a month ago. Before the issue-related fallout from that first debate could evenbe fully absorbed, voters had already moved on to questions about a strange bulge coming from the back of Bushs suit jacket.
What debates really do is provide the reporters, columnists, political scientists and historians following the race with useful little vignettes that help in framing the already decided-upon narrative. Its difficult to explain exactly how Ronald Reagan was able to utilize his unique gift of cleverly coating over whatever the real story was until you can point to him successfully dismissing Jimmy Carter with that famous there you go again riposte. Its easy now to use Al Gores sighs and over-eager wonkiness as evidence of his complete and utter inability to connect with ordinary folks so long as you ignore the fact that, regardless of what you make of those Florida results, at least half a million more Americans voted for him than they did for then-Gov. Bush.
So sure, go to your debate parties, and let the ups and downs of what is in essence two hours of campaign infomercials have an inordinate impact on your personal happiness. Sit in awe and wonder as you contemplate whether Jim Lehrer is a real human being or an action figure thats just taken out of the packaging and wound up every four years to deliver questions in that matchlessly bland level of monotone of his. But all the while, make sure to acknowledge the debates true purpose: creating drinking games that geeks are actually good at.