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March 12
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OCTOBER 3, 2012 1:18PM

Why watching the debates are a waste of time.

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In 1960, the first presidential election I have memory of, the first televised debate took place between Vice President Richard Nixon and Senator John F. Kennedy. Moderated by CBS's Howard K. Smith (one of the famous Murrow boys), viewers who were polled concluded that JFK was the winner of the debate. While radio listeners, concluded that Nixon was the winner.

Back then there were three TV networks, two wire services, four major radio networks, and most cities had at least one daily newspaper.

Fifty-two years later, with the internet and various cable and satellite networks, it is much easier and perhaps more effective to find out virtually everything you need to know about these candidates to make an informed decision.

I would say, perhaps there are some who disagree, that there are crystal clear differences between these two candidates. It should be fairly easy to discern who you want to vote for. There are some news organizations that have opined that the number of undecided voters is smaller than in elections past.

In 1980, I watch the first debate between Reagan and Carter. I was having difficulty choosing between Carter, whom I had voted for in 1976, and John anderson, who was running as a third party candidate. That debate caused me to make a major mistake. As a result I pulled the lever for John Anderson, who a had snowball's chance in hell of being elected President. I haven't voted for a third party candidate since, in any election.

If your mind is already made up, watching the debates are akin to slowing down at a car accident to see the battered and broke car wreckage and perhaps bodies. Your candidate could put his foot in his mouth. Or the other candidate could do the same.

There is little or no substance, as these event have been so choreographed. The questions and answers are fatuous, there are no opportunity for follow ups, and the expectations are set so low, that not falling off the stage will be considered a win.

Better to do something different and better with your time. Like read a book. May I suggest The Selling of a President, by Joe McGinniss. You see there's this guy named Roger Ailes...never mind, read the book. I don;t want to spoil it for you. You can't always see the You Tube debate highlights, tomorrow.


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ah yes, those were the days. Candidates were even chosen at the conventions. It's become a sport and totally academic at the same time. I think I'll go to the Zendo tonight and just sit.
Interesting. Yanno what's crazy? My hubby is actually looking forward [for the first time in his life!] to watching the debate. Call me crazy but I think he actually loves an ardent debate and I'm sure some zingers and cross-zings will be entertaining and depictive of each party's integrity.
Just the thought of seeing how Romney pulls off the 'zings' he's been practicing for two months (wtf?) makes the debate-watching irresistible to me : )
Sad that, for me, the prez debates are more entertainment factor than real.
"There is little or no substance, as these event have been so choreographed"
Like you my first debate was the Kennedy/Nixon debate of 1960 and I was captivated.
Now it's more akin to watching the WWE but not as exciting. I won't be watching either the debate nor the hours of bloviation that will precede and follow.
I can only hope 2 things: 1) that Mr. Romney continues to prove that he has no sense of Americans or America and 2) that Mr. Obama will finally come up with a better euphemism for "folks".
Ben Sen -- sounds like a good plan.

Belinda T. -- If he's never watched one before, I can understand his interest. This could be his first and last.

JT -- Expect much disappointment.

Walter -- the head of the WWE is running for US senate in CT. She is not entertaining. Just another billionaire who is trying to buy a seat.
OE--I know. How about "lucha libre" then? Put them in masks.
Good commentary and a very fine recommendation regarding the McGinniss book.
I watched Obama/McCain (I think I was even part of the OS live-blogging that went on then.) But as you say, the debates are just theater. (Community theater, even.) I don't expect much, and I probably won't watch.
"It should be fairly easy to discern who you want to vote for." Indeed, as I commented elsewhere, at this late date "undecided" is a euphemism for "uninformed".
Granted that the Jon Stewart/Bill O'Reilly "Rumble" on Saturday will prove to be more informative and entertaining. Yet, Ms. Stim and I will still watch tonight.
I will watch only to see Joe Biden photobomb the whole affair.
Great post, I recently watched theVice President Richard Nixon and Senator John F. Kennedy, found on the illustrious YouTube. It was fascinating, raw and full of pure adulterated energy. What a time that was.
I might just watch for the entertainment value of it all. And throw popcorn at the screen. Maybe do one of those drinking games where we take a shot when someone lies - which would mean we'd be drunk in about ten minutes.
ha.akin to slowing down at a car accident to see the battered and broke car wreckage and perhaps bodies.

but i kinds dig seeing politicos wrecked on the shore of their rhetoric ...my bad. seen all the debates. reagan losing his mind in 1984.
also clinton sitting in his seat, mumbling sweet nothings george b' s way. the watch check doomed bush 1
"The Real Candidates of Washington DC." I watch the Housewives, so can't not watch this.
Well I enjoy the rehearsed zingers, the talking points, the attempted gotcha's and how they answer the question they wished they were asked instead of the one they were actually asked. To each their own I guess.
I'm frustrated that I CAN'T watch the debate due to work. At this point in any election, I've made my decision, but sometimes, I want to watch the opposition implode, shoot self in the foot, etc etc.

I'm betting that tonight, Mitt will contradict himself at least once. Shoot, checking his wrist-watch, a seemingly inconsequential gesture, left voters with a bad impression of George HW Bush in 1992.

So... even if it won't change my vote, I'm such a political junkie, I can't resist watching.

The only purpose of the debates is to see if one will make a major gaffe.
The only purpose of the debates is to see if one will make a major gaffe.
Aha now I see your Roger Ailes thing...I will read the book. With regard to your statement,"I would say, perhaps there are some who disagree, that there are crystal clear differences between these two candidates. It should be fairly easy to discern who you want to vote for."

My husband is a media researcher...and he came up with a lot of numbers... basically women who were conservative are moving toward Obama solely on social issues. He came up with a figure...65% of white men are predicted to vote for Romney...I asked him where he got that number and the reply was "I read a lot of stuff" so I can't tell you where it came from...but it "feels" right to me. The scraps of the convention that I watched made it clear cut to me: Do you want to help others? or do we want to ensure that we can help ourselves in the short run?
Your headlne with its subject-verb disagreement ranks right up there with Obama's attempt to locate Reverend Wright in the audience, "Where's he at?"

It seems that OS editors pick but don't edit.
OEsheepdog, kudos on the EP! I will mention that we never would have had the comedy associated with the candidates if it was not for the debates. Remember the box shape under Dubya's jacket which was thought to be part of a wireless receiver secretly provided so he could listen to spoon fed answers from his handlers?
Call me crazy but as a Canadian i find them a waste of time. instead of campaigning for a few months they do it for a few years. Then does the vote of the people really matter when the Electoral College makes the final decision? Then there is all the dirty pool in between. It;s not a turn on for me OE..:)
when shit debates shit, it's always a waste of time
I agree with you 100%. I admit, I have no idea how anyone could truly be an "undecided" voter at this point. The candidates are as different as chalk and cheese. ~r
There are stated differences between the two candidates, just as there were stated differences between Obama and Bush, and then there are the actual policies instituted and continued by Obama, despite his stated positions against them in 2008.

I think t his is what people are saying when they say that there is no effective difference between the two candidates - not that there are declared differences, but Obama obfuscates through oration, and Romney would be so desperate to not end up a one-term president, that he might end up quite the populist his 1st term (I shudder to think what he might do with a second term, though), despite statements to the contrary.

We are now in control of one of the most powerful information and communication tools even in the hands of the common man. You've been given a platform with an editor's pick. You're obviously smart enough to understand the disappointment that Obama has been and the absolute pussy that Romney would be, despite his pandering to the GOP base, and with this tool and platform at your command, with all that it could do to make third parties relevant for the 1st time since Teddy Roosevelt captured 12% of the vote while running for his self-created, Bull Moose Party, you go on record as saying that they are a waste.

They're only a waste because people believe that they are. The moment they realize that there is likely a third party candidate which more accurately reflects their views about what government should do, and what US foreign policy should be as well as how it should be what it should be (diplomacy vs. FUCK YOU, WE'RE GONNA BLOW YOUR ASS UP IF YOU DON'T COMPLY), third parties will drown the useless relics we now know as the GOP and DNP.

Of course, as you note, getting information on the two candidates who participated in the debate is simple and the debate is completely unnecessary, and yet look at all the hoopla surrounding it...

So, perhaps people will never make this realization about third parties, but they certainly won't do so when someone who used to believe in the idea of them uses a public platform they are given to denigrate them.

Remember back to the time when you were young and idealistic. I have no idea what Anderson's platform was, but it was obviously one in which you saw potential and which accurately represented your views.

What was the matter with your vote in that case? Would a change of that vote have saved Carter from the absolute trouncing he received in that election? No. Would you have been as satisfied that you voted in a way which was right for you? No.

Now, I like Carter, and I would have been proud to have cast my vote for him were I old enough at the time, but when I don't feel good about either candidate, I'd rather throw my vote away than use it for someone whom I find distasteful. If enough people cast off the belief that a third party can't possibly win a national election, perhaps we can all go away from the ballot box feeling good about our votes and break the collusive stranglehold that the GOP and DNP have on this country as they each pander to a different group publicly in election years and then legislate for a separate (rich, with the funds to lobby and bankroll their reelection campaigns) group at all other times.
Couldn't agree more that the non-debates are a total waste of time. How democratic can such an event possibly be when candidates from 5/7ths of the parties are excluded, and the pageant is reduced to the two with the least difference between them?

But I couldn't agree less about second-party candidates. There's more to voting than choosing a winner. It's also about getting your opinions and priorities out there. If you support the things the majority of the people supposedly want - public healthcare, an end to the wars, an end to torture, restoration of the rule of law, civil liberties, due process, transparency & accountability, protection of SS/Medicare instead of cuts - what possible reason is there to actively support the major-party clowns, who are both opposed to every one of those things? Even if your preferred candidate obviously has no chance of ultimately winning, that doesn't mean a vote for them is wasted. It still means showing support for something worth supporting. The Demicans and Republicrats will feel no pressure to change unless they start seeing their votes and donations go elsewhere.

It's not throwing your vote away to use it for a person you can support, whose policies you (at least mostly) agree with. It is throwing your vote away to pull a lever or push a button for someone you find distasteful, as MXY puts it.
Somebody once asked Judge Richard Posner--who's a full-time judge, author of some 50 books, frequent contributor to newspapers and magazines, etc.--how he managed to be so productive. "I don't watch televised sports," he answered.

Same principle with debates. I haven't watched any this year and have written two plays, read Uncle Tom's Cabin, The Way We Live Now, two Shakespeare plays, Heart of Darkness, discovered a cure for cancer and translated the Old Testament into pig Latin.

I'm kidding about two of those, but I'm not gonna tell you which ones.
OE, I hope you won't think me rude if I take the opposite position here in the comments.

I suspect our presidential preference and our reaction to last night's unfortunate result are the same, but I think watching the debates is absolutely vital, and here's why.

First, it's one of the few opportunies voters have to see the candidates under circumstances they don't control. Yes, they've rehearsed, yes, they've prepared some of their "zingers" in advance, and yes, the events are somewhat choreographed. But the reason most candidates don't like debates is that the minute-by-minute proceedings, the interactions, and the outcomes are not perfectly predictable.

There are variables at play in debates that candidates can't control. That's potentially revealing. How will they perform under pressure? How powerfully will they make their case? It's a critical and important test.

Remember that modern political campaigns are built on the tightest possible control of every element possible. We get scripted advertising, scripted rallies and events, scripted materials and online content. Little of this comes from the candidate himself or herself. It comes from the campaign teams. But for that brief time onstage, it's just candidate versus candidate. We need to see that.

Now think of this - something I'd say is maybe even more important:

You're absolutely right in pointing out that interested voters have unprecedented access to information they need to make a ballot decision. But for one thing, most voters are not that engaged, don't do political "homework", and tend to make choices based on habit, preconceived notions, or what they hear from various sources.

And the problem is that those sources are also more splintered and divided than ever before. If your TV news or online sources are partisan, well, you know what you'll get. We have so few moments left in political campaigns for all of us to *watch the same thing at the same time*, without filters. And it pretty much ends the second the debate does.

That's the modern commons. It's small and short, but we should all tune in for that brief period.

Lastly... I think it's actually a very good thing for us to know what the other 47 or 53 of whatever percentage is thinking - why they would choose to vote for the guy I won't vote for - and to try to understand why.

I've gotten all verbose again. Sorry, OE. If ever you're looking for overly-earnest, long-winded words without end, you know where to find me. ;)
Surely there has to be some TV wrestling around some place that I could watch. Presidential debates are like watching paint dry, unless President Obama were to publicly say that he was always a Kenyan transsexual communist.
Agreed! Obama was sleeping.
Excellent piece and I and my spouse concur completely. The debates are an absolute farce and what really bothered me is the Media's clambering for "winner" and "loser". The only winners and losers are us - the little people, whom are frequently forgotten and who many legislators could care less about.
You have written this up royally.
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I remember back when Al Gore lost to George Bush, and I had no problem telling anyone that I voted for Ralph Nader. Oh, I heard the thunder:
"You voted for Nader? You could've voted for Gore!! You wasted a vote!"
I could only smile to myself when, after the Supreme Court came back with a verdict [after the Popular Vote clearly showed Al Gore as the winner], people began to realize that their vote really didn't elect the President, after all.
Too hard to explain, people. Read. Learn. Educate yourselves.
Fast forward. Here we are, years later, and nothing has changed.