Tonight Americans will turn on their television sets to watch the first of four announced debates between Presidential Candidate Mitt Romney (R-MA) and incumbent President Barack Obama (D), an event many political commentators have hailed as the most important debate in decades. While Mitt has had practice in the last year debating against the likes of Newt Gingrich, Michelle Bachmann, and Rick Santorum during the Republican Primary season, it has been four years since President Obama faced John McCain. Presidential debates are a staple of the United States’ campaign season, and since 1988, a non-profit organization known as the Commission on Presidential Debates has been the main driving force, using private contributions from sponsors to fund the events. Recently, major sponsors, such as the YWCA and Phillips, have pulled their contributions from the CPD citing that they oppose the promotion of bi-partisan politics within the presidential debates. Present-day debates have not only been affected by the bi-partisan CPD, but social media has become an important factor when it comes to each night’s “winner.”
“The Commission of Presidential Debates [is] a creature of the Democratic and Republican National Committees, formed to take control of the debates away from the original sponsor, the League of Women Voters, because they wanted to control it for their own ends,” said Dr. John Berg, director of Suffolk’s graduate program in political science, who poses the question, “What purposes do they share and what do they not share?”
Of all the issues both the RNC and DNC might disagree on, they “pretty clearly share the purpose of limiting the choices to the two parties,” said Dr. Berg.
The last time a third-party candidate was allowed to be a part of a Presidential Debate was in 1992. The CPD allowed independent candidate Ross Perot to debate against President George H. W. Bush and Governor Bill Clinton. However, viewers of the debate may only remember this because of the amount of times Perot exclaimed, “Let me finish!” during his allotted time.
“We should restore the real non-partisan, as opposed to bi-partisan, nature of the debates,” continued Dr. Berg. “Right now it’s just a subjective judgment by the major parties, and only once have they ever let somebody else in.”
Meanwhile, third-party candidates aren’t totally shut out of the race. Their respective campaigns have had volunteers gathering signatures, handing out information, and booking appearances in states where their names appear on the ballot. Just last week, Libertarian Vice-Presidential candidate Jim Gray stopped by Suffolk for a brunch. Equal time has not been given to third-party candidates through the media, and their existence may even be questioned by the average voter.
“We’re releasing a poll tonight in Florida that has 12 Presidential candidates,” said Director of the Suffolk University Political Research Center (SUPRC) David Paleologos. “We did Virginia last Thursday, five candidates for President. Four on the Massachusetts ballot. People believe there’s only two on the Massachusetts ballot so we, as a university, really care about people who have to get signatures or go through all of the hoops you have to go through to be a candidate.”
The exclusion of third-party candidates not only erases the hard work done by their campaigns, but makes sure that the only ideas to cross voters’ minds are those pre-approved by both major parties. Dr. Berg explained that this is a “limitation on democracy in two ways.”
“One is that we don’t get to consider voting for other people unless we do the research on our own. I mean, Gary Johnson was Governor of New Mexico, so he’s presumably a credible politician but few people even know he’s running. Jill Stein has never been elected to anything but still, [she] is an interesting person and has an interesting program which is quite different. And that’s the second problem — it really limits the range of political debate. You know, there are a lot of ideas out there that most people never hear of. They can find them out by going on the internet, but in democracy we want the whole citizenry of the country to be involved,” said Dr. Berg.
According to Paleologos, the debates have decreased in quality because they’ve “become less authentic and less spontaneous, just like the conventions, and now you see limited coverage of the Democratic and Republican national conventions — it’s a big show.” However, as Paleologos points out, there’s still a great need for national Presidential Debates.
“Everybody else goes away. Pollsters, ad guys, radio people, talk radio, everybody has to get out of the way,” he said. “Let the candidates look each other in the eye, explain their differences, and give the people a vision.”
There’s no question that the debates will be highly watched in most markets, and those in professional politics will be watching to see just how much the numbers will be affected. The SUPRC has already conducted a debate-based poll, asking the voters in Florida and Virginia who they believe will be the better debater.
“In Virginia, it was 46-19 when we asked who was a better debater. Obama, 46, Romney, 19,” said Paleologos. “In Florida, it’s 52-19. So now, you’ve got two swing states where the bar is so high for Barack Obama to jump over and so low for Mitt Romney — that’s potentially a big problem for Barack Obama. He’s got to meet or exceed expectations to keep his momentum going or to gain ground. Romney doesn’t. Romney has to look good, show up, handle himself person-to person, and express how he feels in terms of the differences of his vision.”
In today’s world of high-speed news, social media, and constant communication, one might think a candidate is a clear winner off-the-bat. However, the quickness of the information age may just expose voters to a higher quantity of opinions and points-of-view.
“There’s a little bit of lag time,” Paleologos explained. “In this day of social media, when people don’t watch stuff live— they’ll Tivo or whatever— and they’ll get their information through social media or they’ll get it on their iPhone or their Blackberry, and they’ll watch a videoclip and a summary of the debate.” Social media websites will flood with clips, opinions, and accusations of fact as early as the first ten minutes of the debate.
“As a pollster you’ve got to allow for a bit of lag time to see where the race settles, because people will have an emotional reaction, then they’ll think about it, then they’ll talk to other people over the next day or two, and they’ll be impacted in that second or third ripple,” said Paleologos.
As for what will actually be debated tonight? Only the Commission on Presidential Debates knows for sure.
“I’d like to hear some debate about their economic programs,” said Dr. Berg. “I’d like to hear some debate about drones and I’d like to hear a debate about the war in Afghanistan.”
The First 2012 Presidential Debate will air at 9:00 PM EST from the University of Denver. Jim Lehrer of PBS’ NewsHour will moderate. It is scheduled to be broadcast on all major networks as well as cable news stations.