Last two debates struggle to live up to their history

Nathan Wuertenberg
Staff Reporter

On October 7th and 15th, Presidential hopefuls Barack Obama and John McCain received their last opportunities to openly face each other on a national stage. The first, moderated by Tom Brokaw in Nashville, Tennessee, consisted of a town hall format, where questions from around the nation from everyday voters were presented to the candidates to be answered. The second, moderated by Bob Schieffer in Hempstead, New York, forced the candidates to face each other at close range, sitting beside one another at a round table. The debates didn’t mean a thing.

Debates have always focused on creating decided voters from undecided ones. Candidates have plenty of opportunities to tell their supporters all the wonderful things they would do as President during the various rallies and assemblies that fill a campaigner’s schedule. Why preach to a choir when you need the hallelujahs of the masses outside the church? They don’t need to appeal to their constituents as much as they do to unaffiliated voters who haven’t made up their mind, voters like freshman Betsy Warner who said after the final debate, “I’m voting for Obama now.”

When a McCain or Obama supporter tells you who won, it doesn’t really mean anything because they are already predisposed to think their candidate was better. The Democratic analysts on one television network will say that Obama won, the Republican analysts on another network will say that McCain did. The most important reactions aren’t from people who already know who they’re voting for, but from voters like Warner, whose votes will tip the balance in favor of one candidate or another. But as important as the votes of undecided voters are, they are often decided not by the merits of one candidate’s positions over another but something else entirely.

When voters have seen and heard everything they possibly could before the debates and still can’t decide which candidate would make a better President, the only recourse they have are those trivialities like the appearance, confidence, and charisma of each candidate. In the election of 1960, for example, Richard Nixon showed up to the first televised debate in history against JFK with a five o’clock shadow and a severe sweating problem. Kennedy on the other hand appeared calm and confident, exactly what a voter would want in a President. At the end of the evening, Nixon was roundly declared the victor by everyone listening to the debate on the radio, and by no one watching the televised version.

Ever since, candidates have done their utmost to appear as Kennedy did: collected, self-assured, and fully capable of answering the calls at 3 o’clock in the morning that decide the fate of our nation. They don’t need to worry about what they’re saying, as everyone has already heard their opinions. They only need to worry about how well they say what they are saying. Thus, when an undecided voter becomes decidedly less so, it is not always because they made an educated decision, but because they made a gut call and instinctually decided how well a candidate would do as President of the United States based on how confident that person appeared in a stressful situation. Debates are anything but decisive, but they certainly help people decide.