Presidential debates: Obama, Romney, and Honey Boo Boo

The presidential debates make no difference in an election's outcome. So relax and enjoy the debate as you would any reality TV show. 

Photo: TLC

SAN DIEGO, September 28, 2012 - Eighteen organizations describing themselves as “pro-democracy groups” issued a news release demanding the Commission on Presidential Debates make public the presidential debate contract negotiated and agreed to by the campaigns of President Barack Obama and former Governor Mitt Romney.

While it would be illuminating and in many ways amusing to know the terms the candidates and their campaigns eventually signed off to participate in the series of presidential debates starting on October 3 and the vice presidential debate on October 11, it won’t make an iota of difference to any perceived outcome of the debates, much less the outcome of election in November, any more than watching Here Comes Honey Boo Boo.

The groups calling for disclosure of the debate agreement, including Open Debates, Common Cause, Public Citizen, Rock the Vote, Judicial Watch, Public Campaign, FairVote, Demos, Democracy Matters, League of Rural Voters, Fairness & Accuracy In Reporting, Essential Information, Personal Democracy Media, Reclaim Democracy!, Center for Study of Responsive Law, Citizen Works, Free & Equal Elections Foundation, and Rootstrikers, says voters deserve to know exactly what terms the candidates demanded and agreed to in the debate contract.

Mitt Romney and Barack Obama hold their first Presidential debate on Wednesday, October 3, at the University of Denver.

In a news release, George Farah, executive director of Open Debates, said “The Commission on Presidential Debates undermines our democracy. Because of the Commission’s subservience to the Republican and Democratic campaigns, the presidential debates are structured to accommodate the wishes of risk-averse candidates, not voters.”

In the same release, Bob Edgar, president of Common Cause, was quoted saying “It is vital that voters have access to the rules that govern the influential presidential debates in order to hold the candidates accountable for them and advocate for debate reforms that would strengthen our democracy.”

The coalition of groups hold up the 2004 agreement governing the presidential debates between George W. Bush and John Kerry an example of what it believes to be egregious provisions that sanitize and scrub any real, spontaneous dialogue, exclude third party candidates (another topic entirely) and grant exclusivity for presidential debates to a limited schedule approved by the CPD. 

They point to provisions such as these as being especially offensive:

  • “The candidates may not ask each other direct questions, but may ask rhetorical questions.”
  • “Prior to the start of the debate, audience members will be asked to submit their questions in writing to the moderator. The moderator shall approve and select all questions to be posed by the audience members to the candidates.”
  • “Audience members shall not ask follow-up questions or otherwise participate in the extended discussion, and the audience member’s microphone shall be turned off after he or she completes asking the question.”

Democratic presidential candidate Sen. John Kerry, D-Mass., debates President George W. Bush on Oct. 13, 2004. Bush later won re-election. Photo: Associated Press File.


Reading the agreement, control over the questions or content isn’t all that big a deal. It’s control over the visual elements. Television is all about the visual. For example, in the 2004 debates, the agreement stipulates that the position of the studio television cameras are fixed and do not move. In most live studio productions (think late night talk shows and reality competition shows like The Voice and Dancing With The Stars), the camera operators move around throughout the studio to get different angles.

In addition, in 2004 the CPD agreed there would be no cutaway shots – meaning that unless a candidate was speaking, he would not be shown on camera. So we aren’t able to see any reaction shots from a candidate listening to his opponent. These unguarded moments say more about a candidate than their scripted answers to expected questions about the economy, national security, foreign policy, healthcare and so on. Remember candidate Al Gore’s sighs? Body language and facial expressions are hard to control.

In the end though, presidential debates simply don’t move the needle very far in any direction. Voters may claim to be undecided, and may be saying so when asked in all sincerity.

But decades’ worth of polling results from organizations such as Gallup reveal the truth: people have their minds largely made up by the time debates take place. While a so-called “winner” or “loser” might be declared, the vast majority of voters who claim they are undecided vote along party lines, or along the lines of their personal ideological identification.

Research shows that presidential debates reinforce voter behavior and rarely change it.

Numerous studies show while people claim to be influenced by the news media, what’s true is that people seek out news sources that reinforce their own political ideology. Research by organizations like a 2010 Pew Research Center survey reveal that more conservatives watch Fox News, more liberals watch MSNBC. People who identify with the Tea Party listen to Rush Limbaugh and watch Bill O’Reilly. People who are Libertarian read the Wall Street Journal and watch The Daily Show

Voters will be doing the same with the presidential debates. They will filter the zingers and the flubs through their own ideological filter, reinforcing the voting decision they already were likely to make. Rarely does a voter approach a presidential debate as a true clean slate, with no points scored yet on either side, unless he or she has been in isolation somewhere for several years.

Presidential debates are the ultimate reality TV show. They are great theater, water cooler shows, and just as well scripted. Voters understand this. It doesn’t matter much the size or type of the podiums, who ends up asking the questions, or what the topics are. All of the big ones get addressed eventually. We watch to see if anyone scores a really great line, or have a serious verbal malfunction.

What we can observe that matters is precisely how a candidate will perform as President during a scripted appearance. Many of the President’s critically important appearances are scripted: major policy speeches, the State of the Union address, messages to the nation in crisis. It is important our President be a good performer under pressure and be able to deliver his lines with conviction. It’s not a coincidence one of America’s favorite Presidents known for being reassuring in a crisis was a former actor and broadcaster.

But in the end, we know what we’re going to do without relying on staged debates. For our real entertainment, we don’t count on politicians even when it is an Amazing Race. We count on Honey Boo Boo, Korean rappers and the always reliable Kardashians. 

Gayle Lynn Falkenthal, APR, is President/Owner of the Falcon Valley Group in San Diego, California. Read more Media Migraine in the Communities at The Washington Times. Follow Gayle on Facebook and on Twitter @PRProSanDiego.

Gayle can be reached via Google +


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Copyright © 2012 by Falcon Valley Group



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Gayle Falkenthal

Gayle Lynn Falkenthal, MS, APR, is President of the Falcon Valley Group, a San Diego based communications consulting firm. Falkenthal is a veteran award winning broadcast and print journalist, editor, producer, talk host and commentator. She is an instructor at National University in San Diego, and previously taught in the School of Journalism & Media Studies at San Diego State University.


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