What Do We Learn from Presidential Debates?


As a young teen in 1960, I watched history’s second televised presidential debate, pitting John F. Kennedy against Richard M. Nixon. I viewed it at the home of my first girlfriend’s parents.The dad was a local politician, a city councilman. Also attending was the dad’s closest friend, a political columnist for the local newspaper. Both men were staunch Republicans.

Sitting on the living room floor with the girlfriend, I understood that the dad had set this evening up as a teaching opportunity. He probably didn’t like having me around, but would grudgingly let me live if I would become a future Republican.

Most Democrat pundits had claimed that Kennedy had won the first debate. Most Republicans had called it a tie. As we watched the second debate, the give and take seemed to be much like the first one. But as the debate concluded, the two men in the room cheered with raised fists. Like the winning quarterback and receiver of an NFL game, they high-fived and congratulated each other on a job well done.

When approached, I joined in the celebration. I had no idea what I was celebrating, but I really liked the daughter and was happy to act without understanding the script. The next day I read about the debate in the New York Daily News, and in the local paper. The News (then a Republican paper),  called it “a good night for Mr. Nixon.” Though I was a relatively savvy kid I didn’t get it. What made Nixon the winner? The best information seemed to be that he didn’t sweat as much as he had during the first debate.

As odd as that 1960 memory might seem, opinions on this week’s debate appeared to be just as fatuous.

In a live focus group composed of about 30 Democrats facilitated by Frank Luntz, Bernie Sanders was the clear winner. Why? Various individuals in the group said that Sanders won because he had firm conviction for his beliefs. By that measure, nearly any absolutist would be a potential president.

Then Carl Rove, called “the architect” by President Bush, said, “it was a good night for Hillary Clinton.” Why? “She didn’t say anything to hurt herself.” That sounded like pretty thin evidence.

But that appears to be the way most people see presidential debates. People without strong feelings for any candidate or party are unlikely to watch them.

But voters with strong feelings about a candidate view the debates through the mental prism they bring with them. They applaud their candidate’s favorable lines and discount those of the opposition. Do they ever listen to the opponent and change candidates? Has any voter, a year before an election, suddenly become engaged in the election because of a snappy one-liner?

Though the TV networks would disagree, evidence indicates that the debates are anachronistic rituals that contribute very little to the voting public or the ultimate winner.

Unless, of course, we need to recognize people for sweating less.

My book “The Victory that Wasn’t” offers a fictional alternate history with a different kind of Military, and better outcomes for all Americans. It’s available on Amazon at http://amzn.to/1GUL8oX




Author: Steve Vachss

Steve Vachss has enjoyed a career that permitted him to perform diverse roles. He has been a reporter, a broadcaster, an editor, a tech executive, a tech marketing consultant, and entrepreneur-founder of a company providing online business services. He’s also a US Army veteran. Through all of these experiences, his first love has always been writing. Prior to creating “The Victory that Wasn't,” he wrote literally hundreds of online articles, web pages, and “how-to” books, as well as guest editorials for print media. Born in Stamford, CT, he now lives in Dublin, CA, a San Francisco Bay Area suburb.

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