by Eric Thurm
This past Thursday, I attended a retrospective on the 2012 presidential debates with Beth Myers, a senior advisor to the Romney campaign deeply involved in debate prep, David Axelrod, one of President Obama’s most important political advisors, and Karen Dunn, a U.S. Attorney and the president’s debate coach. Each of the panelists had insightful thoughts on the debate process and the debates as a whole, but the most important thing any of them said was Dunn’s response to a student question on reforming the debates. Viewers aren’t looking for high-handed, idealistic analysis, she said. “They want to see a TV show.”
We’ve sometimes lost sight of the importance of the debates as television, but it’s good to know that the campaigns put some thought into televisual presentation in addition to the policy issues that go into the debates. Axelrod mentioned the continual use of split screen as one of the factors affecting the president’s performance in the first Denver debate – his posture and general visual presentation continually paled in comparison to Romney’s. We’ll get into more of the details of that look at the presidential debates when 2012 comes around in a couple of months, but for now the importance of presentation is worth keeping in mind for a look at the 2004 debates.
Now that we’re almost certainly in territory everyone reading will remember (unless there are any 9 year old children reading), it gets a little harder to be objective about televised events. When everyone (or many people) actually watched the 2004 debates and probably has a not-terrible memory of them, my assessment of their efficacy is weakened slightly, since I was all of 12 years old.
I’m sure everyone remembers the climate heading into the 2004 campaign season: more 24 than Homeland, in the heart of the War On Terror and wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, with a sitting president who seemed in a strong, but vulnerable position based primarily on how much the opposition hated him. Unfortunately, the Republican primary wasn’t particularly interesting, because incumbent President George W. Bush was relatively popular in the wake of his handling of 9/11, but the Democratic primary offers more than enough food for analysis.
Everyone remembers how insane the 2012 Republican primary was (and don’t worry, we’ll get to them soon enough), but few people remember that the 2004 Democratic primary was still a pretty big shit show. There were 10 relatively serious candidates in the race, including an entire tier of characters who graced American political life for a few months the same way Herman Cain and Michele Bachmann did for a time in 2011. Dennis Kucinich, Al Sharpton, Dick Gephardt, Carol Mosley Braun, Bob Graham, and even Joe Lieberman were all in the race at one point before the field narrowed to the serious candidates with a plausible shot at the nomination.
As the beginning of the primary process ended, the Democratic Party was left with four contenders: retired General Wesley Clark, North Carolina senator, perpetual candidate, and current disgraced Senator John Edwards, Massachusetts Senator John Kerry, and of course former Vermont Governor Howard Dean. It’s easy to forget how commanding Dean was for most of the primary, appearing invigorated and nigh unbeatable. Not only that, Dean was an exciting televised figure, bringing populist energy to all of his ads and his debate performances.
The sheer number of candidates made the 2004 Democratic primary debates a substantially different televisual experience. With so many candidates, attention is easily broken up or diverted to whoever appears most interesting at any given moment, facilitating the sort of desperate attention-seeking on display in the 2012 Republican primary debates. Obviously, it’s difficult to say how people experienced the debates without being there, but think back on watching those debates, or the 2012 Republican primaries, and ask how easy it was to switch attention back and forth between the candidates. Pretty easy, right? Of course, part of the reason Dean was the frontrunner was his ability to command attention through his charisma and energy in the debates.
Of course, Dean’s energy eventually backfired, in the now famous “Dean Scream.” The conventional understanding of the scream suggests unchecked passion that scared away voters when Dean suddenly started yelling at his rally after the Iowa caucus. But the magic of technology (and of television) tells a different story. Dean’s microphone was unidirectional, filtering out the roaring, passionate supporters (Deaniacs) who were present at the rally. Rather than simply producing that much volume, Dean was trying to talk over his supporters who weren’t picked up by the broadcast, leaving Dean stuck with a turd of a story that plagued the campaign through its ignominious end.
Here’s where television (and the hypersensationalized cable news culture in particular) came into play: The clip was shown over 600 times in the few days immediately following the scream, elevating an event that could have been a news story for only a few hours into the biggest story of the campaign, helping to tank Dean’s already-flailing campaign in the process. The enormous impact of the scream might actually have been unique to 2004, when there was a sufficiently hyperactive cable news culture to latch onto and repeat sound bites and blow up seemingly small (but sensational stories). The historical trend has suggested a continued prominence for inanities, but it’s possible that had the scream happend in 2012 it wouldn’t have been such a big deal. In the current environment of 20-minute Twitter news cycles, the “scream” might only have been a hot story until something else replaced it in a matter of hours, leaving Dean’s campaign relatively unscathed.
Let’s move on to the general election debates, of which there were three. Though there were almost changes to the format, they stayed largely the same, placing primary importance on the candidates’ performances. Though now-Secretary of State Kerry has loosened up a bit (in a similar fashion to Al Gore), at the time he had a reputation, well-deserved or not, as a bit wooden and boring. That reputation wasn’t helped by his performance in the general election debates with the folksy Bush. Check out Kerry speaking for two and a half minutes about his health care plan.
There isn’t even much to say about this answer as television, particularly since it’s just a long continuous shot of Kerry talking. And like that shot, it’s boring as hell. Even knowing much of the details of the plan, it’s difficult to follow simply because he refuses to vary his monotonous speaking tone and is repetitive rather than punchy. “Zingers” are easy to deride, but hard to argue with when they connect with voters who are otherwise having a hard time paying attention.
Awareness of the cameras is also a crucial element in Kerry’s weakness as a debater. His note taking during Bush’s answers screams indifference to Bush’s opinion, and even if many Democrats were hungry for some measure of condescension toward a president they believed was incompetent or stupid (remember Bushisms?) that attitude is a turn off to slightly more moderate voters.
That’s not to say that Bush comes off too much better in this exchange. He stumbles at the beginning, takes back the start of his answer, and muddles through his answer, qualifying it with “I thinks” and other weasel words. But at least he emphasizes certain aspects of his attack – rationing, quality of care, and most importantly the cited $1.2 trillion tag on Kerry’s health care plan. In fact, the 2004 debates are most widely remembered for an incident in which Bush came off poorly, claiming “You forgot Poland” when called out on the lack of a serious coalition in Iraq.
“You forgot Poland” was an effective soundbite, but not quite as useful as “There you go again” or other notable debate moments. Why? It largely served to reinforce a vision of the president that a large swath of the country already had, but that demographic was also composed of people who were already going to be supportive of Kerry. So though Bush’s stumble may have helped ignite the base, it wasn’t necessary, and wouldn’t have done much to persuade the undecided voters who would ultimately decide the election.
Though neither candidate had a truly substantial edge in the other debates to the point where the outcome of the race could have been altered (though Kerry did quite well), the third and final debate proved important to understanding the history of debates. It was still widely watched (as all debates have been historically), but the last debate suffered in the ratings from a Major League Baseball game, which was broadcast at the same time netting 15.2 million viewers who might (though not necessarily) have been watching the debate, which had a full 4 million fewer viewers than the other debates.
Of course, the debates were potentially less important than the now-infamous Swift Boat Veterans For Truth ads, a media campaign so unique in its dishonesty and effect on the race that swiftboating has come to refer to personal, dishonest, and unfair political campaigns.
How effective were the Swift Boat ads? It’s hard to say, but the one thing the ads almost certainly did highlights the power of television, and of visual media in general – suggestion. Although the allegations were dismissed repeatedly, at least some voters found the ads persuasive, and they’ve widely been taken as part of the reason Kerry lost. Considering Dunn’s point about the debates as TV, it’s possible that ads that are intended as TV might be more successful than debates, which are not.
Previously on Debate Night: Bush/Gore, 2000