Maybe I’m just a pessimist, but I don’t think most Americans care enough about this upcoming election.
That’s not to say they won’t get worked up. They’ll come out to vote, wear pins, buy bumper stickers, watch CNN, and read some articles in the New York Times about their favorite candidates.
They will also most likely tune in this Friday to the first of three planned televised presidential debates, eager to hear John McCain and Barack Obama argue over the most important issues facing our country.
But will it matter at all, or even sway voters? Will the flag-waving, pin-wearing, CNN-watching masses take note? From my experience, I’d say no.
Granted, the concept of presidential debates is terrific – a forum where both candidates can really go at it and confront each other with their own arguments is a rare treat, and a welcome break from the typical rally speeches we’ve been hearing for the last nine months.
And, as we’ve all learned from those middle school history classes, the very first televised debate had a major impact on the Kennedy v. Nixon election of 1960.
But most modern-day presidential debates have had seemingly little effect on their respective elections. We need look no further than 2004 to find decisive evidence of this.
From my recollection, the first of the Bush-Kerry debates seemed a decisive Kerry victory for a number of reasons. Not only did the Massachusetts senator deliver quick and insightful answers, but he projected a far more polished and capable demeanor than the incumbent Bush.
On top of that, Bush came across as clumsy, awkward, and ill-prepared. For someone who had just served four years as president of the United States, you would think he would have had better mastery of the issues.
In fact, his slow and stumbling responses led to rumors that he was wearing a wire, receiving answers from other members of his campaign.
The very fact that such a rumor would even emerge is indicative of just how poorly Bush came across.
And the polls after the debate reflected just that. A Gallup poll found that 53 percent of people felt Kerry won, while 37 percent thought Bush had. In addition, 21 percent of people said they walked away from the debate with a better opinion of Bush. The polls were similar in the two debates that followed, with the majority in both feeling that Kerry had won.
But how much did those debates affect the election? Obviously, not much.
I’m almost positive that voters walked away on Nov. 2, 2004 under the assumption that Kerry was a “flip-flopper,” that he never actually saved anyone’s life in Vietnam, that he had no economic plan, and that he was weak on foreign policy.
Despite having been considered the clear-cut victor in the preceding debates, Kerry fell victim to the constant rhetoric that had been used on him in the months leading up to the election.
The outcome of those debates seemed to have little effect on Bush’s electability. That year reminded me that regardless of which candidate “wins” any given debate, the majority of viewers watching those debates are not looking to gain any great insight into who they should vote for anyway.
They’re looking to hear their own opinions recapitulated, hear what they want to hear, and disregard the rest.
Now, we’re approaching an election with far more at stake than the last, one in which each candidate’s stance on the issues needs to be analyzed to the fullest. The debates will hopefully give us an opportunity to do just that, and also serve as a means of clearing up any confusion over the character of each candidate.
But my fear is that voters will be leaving the polling booths on Nov. 4 thinking that Barack Obama is an Islamic fundamentalist, that John McCain wants to go to war with everyone, and that either candidate will be raising taxes by an exorbitant amount.
The facts will be drowned out, and the debates and the issues will be forgotten. But, then again, maybe I’m just a pessimist. For the sake of our country, I sure hope I’m wrong.