Judging Presidential Debates

Their feelings don't care about your facts.

Donald Trump and Joe Biden portrait style

Longtime Republican pollster and focus group guru Frank Luntz takes to the NYT opinion pages to explain “How to Win a Presidential Debate.” The essay is nonpartisan and the key takeaway, while frustrating to the sort of people who read and comment on (much less write!) political blogs, strikes me as unassailable.

If you’re a typical American voter in any party, allow me to let you in on a little secret: What matters most to you in a presidential debate probably isn’t the same thing that gets the most attention from the candidates, the campaigns and their allies in the immediate aftermath of those big televised showdowns.

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[M]inuscule moments, verbal miscues and misremembering little details can matter so much in the spin room and to partisan pundits afterward. Yet those things often have little to no discernible impact on the opinions of many people watching at home.

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As the first scheduled debate between President Biden and Mr. Trump unfolds this Thursday, the key moments that will have the greatest impact on the remaining undecided voters are those in which the candidates attack each other in defining ways or undermine the political case that each wants to present to Americans. Viewers will quickly decide whether the accusations are fair and the responses effective. From Ronald Reagan’s “Are you better off than you were four years ago?” in 1980 to Barack Obama emphasizing hope and change in 2008 to Mr. Trump telling Mrs. Clinton in 2016 that she would “be in jail” if he won, I think those key debate moments made a meaningful difference in shaping the opinions of undecided or wavering voters who related to what they heard; I certainly saw it in my focus groups and public opinion research. These moments mattered more than any candidate flub or gaffe.

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At the risk of offending every high school debate coach in America, many voters respond to style more than substance. The well-delivered quip lingers longer than the litany of facts, and the visual often trumps the verbal. It’s not just that the electorate tends to be drawn more to younger and more attractive candidates (like Mr. Obama, Mr. Clinton and John F. Kennedy) or to those with more commanding stage presence (which Mr. Reagan had over Jimmy Carter and Walter Mondale, and George H.W. Bush had over Michael Dukakis). While the 2016 and 2020 debates featuring Mr. Trump certainly upended our collective expectations about what exactly is presidential, listening to the voters describe each debate and their gut impressions of the candidates is more instructive about the eventual election winner than getting swept up in spin and punditry.

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Yes, policy solutions definitely matter in presidential debates. But personality, relatability and dignity matter more.

And it’s not just the candidate’s personal performance that leaves an impression. Sometimes forces that are less visible, like the debate rules, play a major role in determining the outcome. The length of time given to respond to questions from the moderator can reward or punish candidates, depending on their individual styles and ability to communicate succinctly. Nothing draws the ire of the average voter more than candidates speaking beyond their allotted time, my focus groups have shown. While most professional debate observers ignore candidates who run long, voters punish them mercilessly.

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In the end, it’s not the facts, the policies or even the one-upmanship that Mr. Biden and Mr. Trump offer in the debate that matters. It’s how they make voters feel. [emphases mine throughout]

Most of the elided evidence is anecdotal, and it’s quite probable that at least some of the takeaways are dubious. But the core point, that it’s about feelings rather than policies and ideas is almost certainly right.

Granting that it supports my strongly preferred outcome in the race, I think all of this redounds to President Biden’s benefit. Whatever shortfalls he may have as a politician, a lack of empathy is not among them. I’m not sure Trump cares about his own children, much less the average Joe. While Biden can certainly be a jerk on occasion, it’s Trump’s default setting. And Biden is geometrically more disciplined, so he’s much more likely to adhere to the debate rules.

On the down side, while he’s not above weird embellishments, Biden is more or less grounded in reality. Trump has no concern in the slightest for facts. Indeed, he probably doesn’t even know what they are! That may well benefit him in this context.

FILED UNDER: 2024 Election, US Politics, , , , ,
James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm veteran. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.

Comments

  1. Slugger says:

    I agree with the posting and intend to ignore the debates. However, I will say that my guy won, won, WON, and made the other guy look like a fool, idiot, and senile.

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  2. gVOR10 says:

    Thank you for reading Frank Luntz so I don’t have to. Yes, it’s all anecdotal, but as I’ve said before, governing is about policy, elections are about entertainment. I’ve been traveling and visiting family. I’ve had the usual conversations: ‘Inflation is bad. Inflation is pretty much over. Prices haven’t gone down!’ and ‘I don’t like either candidate, I liked Obama and Clinton but I don’t like Biden. Did you like Kennedy? Yes. (Hoping she might see a pattern.)’ On such ride the fate of the Republic.

    (Everybody says it depends on the “double haters”. Karl Rove was right, it depends on turnout.)

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  3. MarkedMan says:

    As impossible as it seems to be, there is a large segment of the population (I bet 70%) who have almost no real connection with anything political. Jimmy Kimmel has a schtick where he sends someone out on the street and asks questions on politics, often putting forward a false and ridiculous premise. While they are cherry picking the respondents they elect to show, they seem to have no shortage of completely unaware people. Recently they were asking something about Kamala Harris and one person seemed to have strong political opinions, which turned out to consist of his being angry and wiping his hands of Biden four years ago when he failed to pick Harris as his VP (!!!). More often they feature people who must instantly tune out any and all political talk, because they are completely unaware of even the most basic facts.

    Democracy, when it works, seems to do so because of some kind of variation of theWisdom of the Crowds, the effect where a large number of people, most of whom have no expertise in the area, give estimates on something, and averaging those together can hit amazingly close to the correct answer. But Sir Francis Galton, who popularized this, was right to be initially skeptical since it is highly counterintuitive. His initial experiment concerned the guessing of the weight of an ox at a county fair, and the average of the guesses of 800 clerks, housemaids, ladies about town, etc hit substantially closer to the mark than did that of a butcher long used to dealing with whole animals of that type.

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  4. Kathy says:

    The Kleineorangefuhrer camp seems to be making a lot of noise about Biden using some mystery debate-enhancing drugs.

    I don’t think such a thing even exists. But if it does, they should do far less carping about Biden, and instead mix them with their fuhrers hamberders every day.

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  5. Gustopher says:

    This is why I still wish we were running George Clooney as our Presidential nominee. America doesn’t want a president, we want a spokesmodel.

    Biden could be VP, and do all the work. The man is amazingly vice-presidential.

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  6. Tony W says:

    @Kathy: I am positive Mr. Biden would agree to an independent drug screen of both men.

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  7. gVOR10 says:

    @MarkedMan: In Democracy for Realists, Why Elections Do Not Produce Responsive GovernmentAchen and Bartels, 2016, the authors address various “folk theories” of democracy that attribute some wisdom to the electorate. They don’t say it, but they pretty much agree with the poli sci professor who said the electorate are a box of rocks. They end up at group affiliation as the driving force in voting. And yet I feel it’s fair to say that in it’s relatively brief history democracy has somehow managed to perform better than the alternatives. Perhaps it’s that despite all, there is some lingering responsibility for and accountability to the country as a whole.

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  8. gVOR10 says:

    @Kathy: If there’s a drug that would keep an old, confused debater alert and coherent, the Trump camp would know all about it.

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  9. James Joyner says:

    @gVOR10: I simultaneously think the masses are a box of rocks and that their collective wisdom is often quite good. Voting for promised programs sounds like informed decision making but 1) politicians often lie, 2) politicians who meant what they promised are unable to deliver because of the divided nature of our system, or 3) the politician changes their mind because of new information or circumstances. And that’s assuming the voter lines up so much more policy wise with one candidate than the other. So, voting for character and charisma may actually be smart.

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  10. Lounsbury says:

    @gVOR10:

    democracy has somehow managed to perform better than the alternatives. Perhaps it’s that despite all, there is some lingering responsibility for and accountability to the country as a whole

    This last is like the fallacy that Evolution must have a purpose in mind in order to be an effective mechanism for adaptation, but in fact evolution has no purpose and simply ceaselessly iterates… to excellent long-term effect.

    Democracy provides a mode of change. The advantage over autocracies and more broadly authoritarian governments is this. It is not greater wisdom of electorates it is an active mode of change and adaptation.

    The Left-Liberal (by which I do not include hard-Left authoritarians/dictatorship-of-the-prol flavours) precept that More Democracy and More Transparency is always good were always misplaced unfounded aphorisms without good foundation, false aphorisms I suppose.

    The example of the Left driven US ‘reforms’ that brought the tyranny of the party primaries is a fine example of the misplaced secular faith as it were. Rather less democracy and rather less transparency in the selection process would be rather healthier. Like making sausages.

    @James Joyner:

    I simultaneously think the masses are a box of rocks and that their collective wisdom is often quite good.

    Collective wisdom is non-existent.
    But the masses reacting to elites or governing elites over-reach or to socio-economic pain and providing a channeled Mode of Change (& perhaps evolution) is a good thing. As the comparator is authoritarian systems without good modes of change transmission and which tend to break over time.

    1) politicians often lie,

    People lie.
    Even the ones who pretentiously claim otherwise. Small lies, big lies, hedging to avoid uncomfortable issues. Human.
    Beni Adam Beni Adam – politicians generally simply make very painfully visible the waivering human character (on an aggregate basis).
    If people really understood or rather accepted that Politicians are merely a mirror to our condition rather than banging on the class, one might make some modest progress. Not that this will happen as it is far too convenient a mental dodge.

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  11. DK says:

    @Gustopher:

    America doesn’t want a president, we want a spokesmodel.

    Fortunately Clooney is decent enough to know better.

    “America” wants a lot of things it ought not get. Parents don’t acquiese to the all the dumb desires of a toddler, I don’t think I should have to suffer so the stupids can feel good.

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  12. Gustopher says:

    @DK: I’m thinking of it as more of a figurehead arrangement. Or a division of labor, where Clooney or some other extremely charismatic person is responsible for the communication, and someone competent does the administration and policy stuff.

    It’s dumb, but the world is a dumb place. Kerry lost to Bush in 2004 basically because people decided they would rather have a beer with Bush than him, choosing the guy who doesn’t drink. A whole bunch of people make decisions like that.

    If this is the game we are playing, we should at least consider playing the game.

    There is the risk that you end up getting another Trump, as I expect a lot of people in 2016 made their peace with voting for Trump because they figured he would be lazy, defer everything to underlings, and the underlings would be big-standard Republican establishment types. But what’s life without a little risk?

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  13. MarkedMan says:

    @Gustopher: There was an American Indian Nation that had a War Chief and a Peace Chief. I thought it made a lot of sense as what is vital in one endeavor is often counterproductive in the other.

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  14. dazedandconfused says:

    As never before has a Presidential candidate had to take the stage with albatrosses anything like those of his actions on 1/6, multiple indictments and a conviction for felonies hanging from his neck, I don’t think this one is as predictable as Luntz believes it to be. The models of the past are not sufficient.

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