October 6, 2016

Presidential debates continue to be unimpressive on both sides

By Ryan Hiles —

It was hard not to get sucked into the Super Bowl atmosphere surrounding the first presidential debate a couple of weeks ago. Would Hillary be able to get under Donald’s skin? How would Trump respond to such pointed attacks for 90 minutes? Would he be able to keep on message and avoid going off on some incoherent tangent? Yes, poorly and of course not, respectively. But, for as much historical significance and political import as we confer on these debates, are we even sure that the debates really matter?

According to polling aggregator RealClearPolitics, while individual debate performances can sometimes briefly sway polling data, the net effect is almost always temporary and polls tend to revert back. So while yes, a particularly horrendous debate performance can momentarily swing some voters one way as opposed to the other, that swing has been shown to stabilize and correct itself as the campaign continues and party loyalty returns.

Do we actually learn anything about these candidates through presidential debates?

“I feel like I learned as much as I could about the candidates from watching the first debate, which is to say, not a lot,” graduate student Connor Laramore said. “What you are able to gather from the debates really depends on how much you know about the candidates going in. I’ll probably still watch the other ones, and I expect them to be equally unenlightening.”

In a very rudimentary way, debates can be informative. But for anyone who even casually follows the campaign, debates are essentially pageants, more concerned with aesthetics than substance.

It’s strange how we expect that these events will be these ultra-revealing contests of human intellect, where one qualified candidate will exchange and engage with thoughts and ideas from another qualified candidate. Isn’t it ironic, though, that we expect to see candidates at their most vulnerable and human when they are at their most coached. Debate prep is nothing but anticipating potential questions and memorizing canned, focus-group tested lines. Though I support Hillary Clinton, to be honest, but she’s among the worst offenders in this respect.

I’m certainly not criticizing Clinton for actually preparing to debate the intellectual equivalent of Scrooge McDuck after he started attending White Power rallies. But my support for her will surely have nothing to do with these debate performances, partially because I firmly believe her opponent to be an unrepentant bigot. Mostly, I’ve come to realize that either candidate can say  anything, regardless of the statement’s relation to the truth, and go basically unchallenged.

Debates are fun, and that’s understandable. They get political nerds like myself in a tizzy and give us something to fret about before election day. But maybe our standard should be more than that.

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