I logged into Facebook this morning and was amazed at how many people commented about last night’s debate with a swaggering confidence only matched by that of a TV pundit. As a former pollster, paid campaign worker, and someone who has taken graduate-level campaign management courses from one of the best minds in that field, I wanted to shout out to them that "nobody 'won' the debate last night!" I quickly realized a one line Facebook post wouldn’t suffice.
No one ever “wins” a presidential debate in any meaningful way, with only a few rare historical exceptions. Even then, those exceptions are debatable: frequently poll numbers will mysteriously move and the “pros” can’t attribute it to anything, so they say “oh, this must have occured because Gore sighed seven times during the debate” or “clearly this is because GHW Bush looked at his watch during the debate” or “obviously because Reagan said ‘there he goes again’ during the debate.” Debates frequently become the post hoc explanation for a shift in the numbers.
For the most part, the only time debates affect poll numbers in a significant way is when someone screws up in an even bigger way. Yet, no one screwed up in a big way last night. Claims that “Obama won” or “Romney won” make me laugh. How did they measure this? Did they analyze a poll that just got back from the field? Have they conducted a thorough analysis of tracking polls before and after the debates? Did they conduct a focus group in their living room last night with a diverse selection of the electorate? Or, are they just doing their part to perpetuate spin?
Certainly, debates can “firm up the numbers” a bit, but you rarely see huge swings that you can actually measure or attribute to someone’s rehearsed debate zingers. News pundits that tell you otherwise are just filling the air and trying to get you to the next commercial break. When you hear someone say one politician “won” a debate, ask them “is this just a primal, gut feeling that bypassed your cerebral cortex on its journey to your mouth, or is this based on thoughtful analysis of how their debate performance will directly translate to votes amongst key voters and electoral success in November?“
What is frightening is that most people won’t make their decision on any of the substance in any of the debates (if there is any), or policy substance or facts in general. Think about it: have you ever learned anything in a debate or rearranged your opinions because of one? In fact, most voters are more likely to fall for some absurd TV advertisement that makes them feel a certain way. This is not me being negative or cynical: this is a fact. Why is this the most expensive election in the history of democracy? Why is there so much TV advertising? Because it works. TV ads are a very effective way to sway the supple minds of the uneducated voter or the persuade the noble “undecided” voter. If you want to win, you have to “dominate the dominant medium,” as the experts say. And to do that, you need cash. Lots of cash.
Most effective (and this says just as much about voters as it does about the cynical types that write, test, and focus group the ads) are those ads that tug on the well-exposed human levers of greed, fear, and in-group psychology (e.g. “Romney will pull your grandma’s walker out from under her” or “Obama’s second term will be like Soviet tanks crushing freedom in Czechoslovakia.”) These absurd TV ads are so common because they work much better than other methods (like debates). The average voter won’t fact check, they won’t think, they will just vote their “feelings” and fears or what people in their peer group vote. So statements that so-and-so “won” the debate last night (with no evidence to support the claim) only perpetuate this phenomenon of feelings-based democracy. These empty statements do nothing to advance thought-based democracy.
The reality is that the American electorate hates and punishes truthful politicians, despite voters’ frequent calls for truth and honesty in politics. When polled, they say they want smaller government, but when asked which programs they don't want or need, they won't cut a darn thing. They also don't want to hear painful truths about our fiscal and military overreach. (For example, McGovern was one of the rare honest politicians on the subject of the Vietnam War - in either party - and we all know what the American people thought about that: they gave Nixon a landslide victory unseen in American politics before or since, even after knowledge of Watergate began to bubble up). Many people may have tuned in last night for a good dose of truth and candid debate because they are so fed up with the TV ads, but I fear they will be disappointed.
You may think I am of the ranks of the fickle, undecided hoard. Certainly, after the debate, I am not sure who I am more disdainful towards: on one side, we have a Republican who has gone to absurd lengths over the past few years to convince Republican primary voters that he is not the moderate he was in Massachusetts and that he is not the level-headed politician who worked with liberals to come up with a health plan that is surprisingly similar to Obama’s national version. Last night, he tried to convince us that he is a moderate afterall. On the other side, we have someone who campaigned four years ago on transparency in politics but then declared a war on whistle blowers, someone who campaigned on a new direction but brought Clinton’s Wall Street-friendly economic team on board, and someone who continued some of the very same civil liberties abuses that were so abhorrent under Bush. Change has been even more ellusive than hope.
However, it's not that I'm undecided. Rather, I am weary. I'm weary of this charade that is euphemistically labeled a "democracy." I am weary that my vote will matter less than the voice of someone who can donate directly to elections or independent advocacy groups. I'm weary that my vote will matter less than those who can afford to buy access and influence to the policy process at all levels and branches of the government. So much money is given to candidates of both parties because the return on political spending is absurdly high. To ignore this fact is to flirt with delusion.
Although I follow politics closely and used to be actively involved in this ignoble profession, I will be honest and admit that I can’t tell you who “won” the debate. But I can tell you with great confidence and conviction who lost: the American people. I wish we would have had a debate last night. A real debate. I wish the moderator had used the non-partisan source www.opensecrets.org to share with the American people how much one or the other politician raised regarding any issue mentioned in the debate. For example, I would love to watch both politicians squirm when they try to say that corporate cash from Wall Street doesn’t play a role in their policy positions. I wish that Obama and Romney would have had to share the stage with other parties’ official candidates. I wish we had the kind of democracy most of us think we have.
Sure, the Green candidate or Libertarian candidate might not win, but their presence would bring a source of candor into the debates. This is especially true on foreign policy, where neither of the two major candidates has proposed anything that would end this country’s unsustainable policy of endless war. There is no evidence to support the hope that either of the major candidates would – or could – stand up to the military industrial complex, a dynamic that has everything do with our long-term debt and ongoing deficit and nothing to do with our actual defense. The presence of other candidates would have helped voters see how much money Wall Street gives to both major parties. (If you really want your way in Washington, DC, buy both sides… ) The inclusion of underfunded candidates in the debate would help make the American people become painfully aware of the level of institutionalized and legalized bribery (campaign donations) that both Republican and Democratic candidates are reliant upon. Their presence would have helped bring dormant issues like Global Warming to the front burner, where it urgently belongs if continued life on this planet is important.
So, despite what you hear from the pundits – whether on Facebook or on TV – neither candidate “won” or “lost.” Last night was not a high point for democracy or for either candidate, but a sad reminder of how far our political system has to go before we can call it a democracy, a government of, by, and for the people. Even more important than your vote this year for Obama or Romney is your energetic support of non-partisan groups that are fighting to get money out of politics, an effort than can only raise the relative volume of your voice and the importance of your vote.
Your ideological slant should not matter: neither the conservative Koch Brothers nor a political director of a labor union ought to have more of a voice than you. But, they do. And they will continue to have more of a voice than you if you don't do something about it. The effort to get money out of politics is an effort that must span both parties and persist across the ebb and flow of election cycles.
Until that day, your vote will always mean less than someone’s well-financed voice. Until that day, someone else’s wallet will be more important than your ballot. Until that day, real debate will not occur. Here is a great place to start: https://movetoamend.org/ Get involved.