What You Saw in the Debate
Most pundits figured if Trump could tie his shoes then he would have the most to gain from the debate. He really did have a lot to gain by appearing presidential and in control but the issue is of course whether or not he actually maintained any sense of presidential decorum. He didn’t.
Presidential debates are mostly spectacle and this one was no different. Sure, Hillary won especially if you keep score according to a debate coach’s tally sheet of arguments and counter arguments. Presidential debates such as these are not interested in who comes up with a better argument but rather who can make the other look bad.
But the public anticipates debates with a certain amount of enthusiasm. It’s a contest between democracy’s formidable gladiators; there is an underdog challenger doing battle with a superior opponent and we talk about debates with all the war metaphors we can muster. There are “attacks,” and “aggression,” along with “victors and the vanquished.” We would be better off viewing the debates as platforms to make judgments about individuals leading to a decision about which candidate is best. The “winner-loser” frame extends the war metaphor but also causes us to watch it like a horse race constantly attending to who is ahead and who is behind rather than learning something about the issues.
But still, debates contribute to voter knowledge and the acquisition of information. It is true enough that journalism rarely these days considers itself to be a platform for issues and deliberative consideration. So debates have slightly appropriated this role. The debates give us an opportunity for a raw look at the candidates including how they appear on TV, how they handle themselves spontaneously, and general issues of charisma and attraction. This is an important and satisfying counterpoint to political ads which are strategically constructed and designed to be manipulative and the voters know it. It is quite easy to dismiss candidate commercials but less so for debates because of their increased perception of authenticity.
So what did we see the other night and how does it fit in with some of the research on debates?
Even though debates are known to reinforce partisan preferences, the first Clinton-Trump debate transcended that conclusion because Hillary sliced and diced Trump. She set traps (the coming Miss Universe interview), behaved more politely, had very few fact checking problems, appeared composed and in control, unhinged him a few times as was the debate plan, and spent more time on policy.
Dorothy Rabinowitz – of the conservative Wall Street Journal of all places – wrote that Hillary is the only thing that stands between the United States and the “reign of the most unstable, proudly uninformed, psychologically unfit president ever to enter the White House.” Since in one study almost 30% of the viewing audience considers the presidential debates more helpful than talk shows or advertising spots, this means that a lot of people witnessed the Hillary performance in the debate. And given that the viewership was the biggest in history (over 80 million viewers) she was in a position to reintroduce herself to many people.
Presidential debates also produce multiplier effects. This means that post debate citizen communication about political issues is stimulated. The debate induces communication. And this post debate communication is one way that partisan preferences are mediated. In other words, debates because of information processing and selection biases are strongly implicated in reinforcing existing partisan biases. But these effects are mediated by post debate conversation. As citizens engage others, especially if this engagement represents some sense of substantive exchange, then partisan positions are challenged. From my own experience anyway, the Clinton-Trump post debate interactions were robust. This of course has something to do with Trump’s media presence and inimitable personality along with the uniquely personal and conflict oriented nature of the campaign. Nevertheless, it prompted post debate conversation relative to the issues people are thinking about.
One might continue to think, in naïve rationality, that Trump will make the necessary adjustments but it’s getting late and first debates are the most watched as the audience trails off for the next two. But we will tune in waiting for some sort of catastrophe that we can talk about after the debate.