We all tend to over-react to the debate one-liners, which the candidates spend more time practicing than a standup comic honing a new act. (In all likelihood, Stephen Douglas’ worked with his handlers on jokes before he got into the ring with Abraham Lincoln.) Some of these zingers may endure long after the 2012 campaign is over. But often these rehearsed bits of spontaneous debate humor become memorable only because they are endlessly repeated on the TV news. These one-liners are akin to Zsa Zsa Gabor, who was said to be “famous for being famous.”
In our determination to tote up round-by-round points like a boxing referee, journalists easily forget that undecided voters tend to switch off a debate, asking, “What did I learn?” and not “Who won?” The more we treat a White House debate like a sporting contest, the more that we misunderstood the role that these 52-year-old presidential face-offs play in shaping electoral behavior. At this stage of the campaign, when likely voters have already developed solid impressions of Obama and Romney, all new information is incremental rather than (buzzword alert) a game-changer.
Having spent a few harrowing Sunday nights back in the 1980s—knowing that helicopters would not carry newsmagazine pages and high-speed presses would miss their production schedules if I froze at the keyboard—I understand the deadline-driven pressures that accompany presidential debates. Reflection and original thought are hard to find amid the hurlyburly of Debate Night in America.
So the wisest course is for campaign reporters to remember that they understand everything about the debate except how it played in Peoria—and in Pueblo (Colorado) and Pensacola (Florida).