By Gwen Ifill
Special to The Washington Post
As President Barack Obama and Mitt Romney take the stage in Denver on Wednesday for the first of their three debates, they won’t just face off against each other. They’ll also be competing with the rich history of presidential debates — the zingers, questions and comebacks that will be replayed and invoked over and over in the coming weeks. I’ve had the privilege to moderate the two most recent vice presidential debates, and I’ve heard many misconceptions about these events and their impact on a race. Here are a few of the most common.
1. VOTERS USE DEBATES TO DECIDE
For many voters, televised presidential debates serve to focus the mind. Seeing the men who would be president — yes, always men, so far — face off empowers viewers to finally choose a side.
But debates are only part of the American voter’s political diet. Like 30-second ads or stump speeches, they do as much to confirm impressions as to alter them. Think back to some memorable debate moments. Did George H.W. Bush glancing at his watch really persuade people to vote for Bill Clinton, or did it confirm the worst suspicions of those already leaning away from him? Did Lloyd Bentsen dismissing Dan Quayle as “no Jack Kennedy” lose the election for Michael Dukakis, or did it speak to an existing worry that Bush lacked the judgment to pick a No. 2 who could assume the presidency?
Minds were already made up. Gallup polls going back decades show precious little shift in established voter trends before and after debates. The major exception: 1960, when Gallup suggests that Richard Nixon’s lackluster, sweaty performance against John F. Kennedy moved a dead-heat campaign into the Democrats’ column — and that’s where it stayed.