Experts Discuss the Third Presidential Debate
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RAY SUAREZ: To assess how president Bush and Sen. Kerry communicated their messages, last night and in the two previous debates this election season, once again we’re joined by James Fallows, national correspondent for the Atlantic Monthly, and Kathleen Hall Jamieson, director of the Annenberg Public Policy Center at the University of Pennsylvania.
Professor, can either or both campaigns look back at last night as an effective, persuasive hour-and-a-half in the life of the campaign?
KATHLEEN HALL JAMIESON: Yes, they can, because each campaign spoke to a specific segment of the audience that is their needed base, and did so very effectively.
You heard, for example, one of the characteristics we identified as Sen. Kerry’s earlier, in an earlier program, which was stay to theme, go for specifics; only he added a twist in last night’s debated.
He was indicting the Bush administration for what he said was not caring about America’s families, or they’re not doing well under the Bush administration’s policies.
And then in six sentences he laid out eight statistics that specifically indicated numbers of things that tied to problems in what states? Arizona, Ohio, and Wisconsin. He spent most of his time when he was being specific either talking to the swing states or a critical constituency, women, whom he has tried to draw back and opening the gender gap, assault weapons, appeal to women, Roe V. Wade, appeal to women, minimum wage, more women are affected.
By contrast, the president was speaking to his base, and particularly the fiscal conservatives, arguing that you’re going to get more spending and more taxing under Sen. Kerry, and using such words as “liberal”, “out of the mainstream” a lot, again a characteristic. He stayed on those messages.
RAY SUAREZ: Do you agree with the professor on her analysis of how the two campaigns used this and if so does it create a conversation that’s not really a conversation?
Are they really having two separate programs?
JAMES FALLOWS: Sure. Certainly within the confines of the debate floor, that so; I do agree very much that while we now have polls showing that in all three of the debates, the public considered that Sen. Kerry did the better job, what actually will matter is how each of the teams is able, each of the candidates can sort of rally its troops for the election.
So we won’t know that until Election Day. But you can think of Sen. Kerry essentially talking in policy, and about policy problems, about jobs, about health care, about all the other things that he went through, and the president essentially talking about values.
And the most dramatic case of this was right after Sen. Kerry gave his very detailed proposal about the minimum wage, the president didn’t even address the question about the minimum wage.
He didn’t even give the standard Republican answer, which was the burden on small business, but just went to No Child Left Behind, which was sort of shorthand for accountability and local responsibility.
RAY SUAREZ: Well, as someone who is trying to pick apart the threads, why they do that sort of thing… when a moment like that occurs, what do you take away from it?
JAMES FALLOWS: Well, it took away from it — it might have been, you know, sort of real-time difficulty from the president in being able to come up with the right kind of answer.
But I think it was largely a strategy that each of the campaigns was given going in of who they had to go for.
And you see Sen. Kerry trying for people in the middle, these elusive undecided voters, people who might be feeling economic uncertainty, loss of jobs, women, people concerned about gun legislation, the president seemed more to be trying to build enthusiasm and fortitude among his core people by saying, Sen. Kerry is too far to the left and I am a strong leader who will stay with you.
RAY SUAREZ: Well, Professor, you are someone who studies persuasion and rhetoric. You noted that the two candidates brought up various themes in their time on the clock last night.
Does it work? Does it work as a speech to a broad and diverse audience to bring up God, to bring up Ted Kennedy, to bring up liberalism?
KATHLEEN HALL JAMIESON: Yes, it does, but let me turn for a moment to disagree with Jim about something.
The president did say that he supported the McConnell bill that would have raised the minimum wage, and the problem with his saying that for that large audience is most people have no idea what that meant.
But the reason that he said it, I believe, was to speak to blue collar workers and to say, wait a minute, I don’t oppose the minimum wage. I actually favored some version of it.
What the McConnell bill would have done, and it didn’t pass the Senate or the House, and as a result it didn’t come to the president, was provide an increase in the minimum wage but let the states exempt themselves from it.
As further reference to God and liberal on each side, the candidates were doing something that was very important. One of the things that the senator was doing was speaking to those people who are more likely to be churchgoers and as a result more likely to vote Republican and saying, God factors in my policies and in my personal beliefs. In an interesting moment, he said that a woman’s right to choose was to be decided by the woman, God and her doctor.
The traditional Democratic formulation is the woman and her doctor. On the other side, the use of the words “liberal” and “out of the mainstream” and the suggestion that the senator is more liberal than Edward Kennedy, a suggestion that the National Journal made only by looking at some votes in one year and not in his full career, but nonetheless, a position that one can say is resonant, the senator’s basic positions are to the liberal end of the continuum, all those words are essentially saying, don’t take him to be mainstream.
He’s too far out there for you, centrist, middle-of-the-road voters. And by the way, base, he’s really scary.
RAY SUAREZ: James, in watching these debates, did you see the candidates change tactics, change tack, put new things or drop old things from the arsenal coming into last night?
JAMES FALLOWS: Certainly you saw that on the president’s side. That was one of several things which I think made this whole series of debates a significant step forward for Sen. Kerry and his campaign.
You’ll recall four years ago one of the problems for Al Gore was he seemed to be three different people in three different debates and the candidate of course of whom that’s true this time is President Bush, who in the first debate was more or less the angry president, the second one was more the feisty president.
This one he was kind of the smilier, friendlier president; whereas, Sen. Kerry was essentially the same every single time in his demeanor and the way he was advancing his points. And so I think that is a step back for the president.
It leads me, what I think will be the historical impact of these debates, in 1980, an election which has many similarities to this current one, the incumbent, Jimmy Carter, had external problems, and Ronald Reagan was challenging him. And the debates proved to be a plausibility test for Ronald Reagan. Was he an acceptable alternative as the president?
And I think that Sen. Kerry used these debates to pass that test. It doesn’t mean that he’s going to be elected; it does mean that he’s competing on different footing now.
RAY SUAREZ: Do these have a cumulative impact, Professor, both in the voters’ perception of the candidates and in the candidates’ view of the campaign themselves?
KATHLEEN HALL JAMIESON: Yes, they do. One of the things that we know from studying debates is that voters learn from debates. They learn both about the candidates’ issue positions, and they learn about the candidates.
They make judgments about how the candidate is going to act when the candidate governs. And it’s important to try to hold our recollection of the person who debated when we hear stump speeches such as those that you excerpted at the beginning of the program because once the candidates go on the stump, they start to create the caricatures of the other side that they did not create inside the debates.
They’re much more careful about their facts even when they’re still distorting in debates than they are on the stump. And, as a result, the candidate, for example, that has a natural advantage coming into the debates is almost always the challenger because the incumbent tries to caricature the challenger as the person who’s highly risky.
The advantage for Sen. Kerry as a result was going to be coming onto the stage and not being the caricature the president’s campaign had made him out to be. The advantage for the president is that it gives him a chance to speak directly to the American people about all the things that are affecting their lives and forecast a future for them.
And when he said that he would focus on Social Security reform in his next term, you can believe him. When Sen. Kerry says health care reform, you can believe him, as well. Promises forecast governance.
RAY SUAREZ: Let’s talk about the cumulative impact a bit. After the first debate, the public said the senator won and it was by a pretty convincing margin.
Right after the second debate, they said the senator won, but by a much smaller one. But then when the pollsters went back a week later, the margin had started to grow rather than pull into a closer tie.
JAMES FALLOWS: Indeed.
RAY SUAREZ: What’s going on there? Did the second one sort of mellow in the public’s memory?
JAMES FALLOWS: I think that there may be some of that. And we’re not far enough away from the third one yet to know what its view will be, four or five days later, but it’s good news for Sen. Kerry that in each one of these debates his apparent win has become more apparent as time has passed and people have digested it.
One hypothesis would be an emotional importance of debates is often some unintended revelation of a person that sort of either confirms or denies preexisting fears or hopes about the person. For example, when Al Gore was sighing, people thought that fit their image of him.
For Sen. Kerry the suspicions before the debates were that he was too stiff, too haughty, too indecisive; and his bearing did not confirm any of those things; and indeed refuted it in many ways.
For President Bush some of the unintended revelations he had confirmed previous suspicions about him, of being not used to criticism, not willing to change his mind, testy, et cetera.
So on the emotional score, I think those confirmations resonated with things people had previously been suspecting. And that may be account for some of this cumulative effect.
RAY SUAREZ: But did that also set him up for a population going into last night’s debate already perceiving him as having a good shot at winning again?
JAMES FALLOWS: Well, Sen. Kerry having…
RAY SUAREZ: Yes.
JAMES FALLOWS: I think that a significant fact about the difference between the first and the third debates is that many more people watched the first one. And that was the one where the president did the worst, you know, by any measure. And so that was important.
In the third one, the expectation games might have already shifted so that Sen. Kerry was expected to do well and there was a pre-discounting for some of the president’s limitations as a debater.
So I think probably the effect of the third one was more for each candidate to reinforce the point he was making to his own particular base.
RAY SUAREZ: Professor, in the brief time we have, agree, disagree?
KATHLEEN HALL JAMIESON: Disagree. I don’t think we can say win-loss about debates. We can say it about football; we can say it about chess. We can ask how much did the public learn?
And you could say you won or lost, that is, you won the argument on specific issues, but you can’t win or lose 90 minutes. I don’t know what that means.
RAY SUAREZ: Professor, James, good to see you both.
KATHLEEN HALL JAMIESON: Thank you.