TOPICS > Politics

The State of the Debate

October 9, 1996 at 12:00 AM EDT


MARGARET WARNER: For a look on where the race stands right now and what the vice presidential debate may bring to it we have Andrew Kohut, director of the Pew Research Center for the People and the Press. Welcome back, Andy.

ANDREW KOHUT: Happy to be here.

MARGARET WARNER: First, let’s look at the environment for this debate. What did Sunday night’s debate between Clinton and Dole do, if anything, to the race?

MR. KOHUT: Not very much. It was one of those debates that confirms choices, rather than changes minds, and if you–there’s a lot of evidence for that if you look at the tracking polls, they’re the same at the end of the week pretty much as they were at the beginning of the–or before the debates. CBS, the “New York Times” re-interviewed people and a stunning 92 percent of the people that they interviewed said that the debates hadn’t changed their minds. 2 percent said they had switched to Clinton, 2 percent said they had switched to Dole, so the net net of this is nothing. And then the other element of it besides viewers not changing their minds is that fewer–there were fewer viewers as we suspected, and the polls are indicating, fewer people watched this debate. Viewership seemed to be down as much as 20 percent compared to 1992, the first debate then.

MARGARET WARNER: Did the debate affect people’s perceptions of the personal qualities of the candidates?

MR. KOHUT: Well, I think they did. I think Dole did help himself among those debate, viewers’ favorability ratings for Bob Dole increased, his negatives went down, some of the Gallup Poll ratings found him, more people saying that he was honest, more people saying that he was caring. He was humanized. He humanized himself by his performance. The polls didn’t ask who was the most humorous of the two candidates but he probably would have won that and maybe the pollsters can do that for debate two.

MARGARET WARNER: Now, Donald Rumsfeld, the Dole campaign chairman, was on Monday night on the show, and he said, getting the personal qualities up, those personal ratings up for Dole was very important because only then would people be open to his arguments. Is that true as a general proposition?

MR. KOHUT: Well, I think, I think so. Whether that happened, is another question.

MARGARET WARNER: Another question.

MR. KOHUT: But I think it is, because a lot of the failure that Dole has had as a candidate I think doesn’t have to do with his message, has more to do with him as an individual and the way he’s perceived, and so maybe he started something, but boy, there’s nothing apparent in these surveys to say that, that this debate was crucial. So far, we’ve put it down in the non-event category.

MARGARET WARNER: No sign that Step 2 has taken place.

MR. KOHUT: No sign.

MARGARET WARNER: All right. Turn now to tonight’s debate. Historically, have vice presidential debates had any impact?

MR. KOHUT: Well, historically, vice presidential candidates don’t matter much and vice presidential debates matter less. I mean, I think the best example of that was in 1988 when Bentsen and Quayle debated; by a 59 percent to 19 percent margin, Bentsen was thought to have won that debate. Of course, he didn’t go to become vice president and Quayle did as George Bush’s successful race in 1988, so by and large, in terms of outcome, they don’t–these races don’t matter. They can matter in terms of the articulation of ideas and affect the general tone of the campaign, but not in terms of who won, who lost, or people changing their minds, that sort of thing.

MARGARET WARNER: And how does the public perceive these two men, Al Gore and Jack Kemp?

MR. KOHUT: Well, they perceive them very positively. We are in an unusual situation where the vice presidential candidates, in effect, have better images in a sense than the presidential candidates. Both men have lower negatives than people at the top of the ticket. For much of the first term, Gore’s favorability ratings were better than Bill Clinton’s, and Kemp has a generally positive image. He’s not known very well, but what people know about him, they like.

MARGARET WARNER: Well, briefly, what do they know or think they know about Gore and Kemp?

MR. KOHUT: Well, we asked people to give us one word that describes each of these candidates, and I’ll use the words that came out of the mouths of our respondents, and the most frequently mentioned words for Al Gore was intelligent, good, environmentalist, honest, leadership, smart, quiet, of course, stiff is right there under quiet, but by and large a very good image, and Kemp has a comparable image. Football is still part of it but people say good, leader, energetic, okay. They’re both defined in positive terms. They’re both seen as centrists, and I think one of the interesting things about Gore is he has given a more conservative rating than Bill Clinton, not by much, but a little bit. So we’re looking at two men that the American public like.

MARGARET WARNER: And though this, you don’t think this will have much effect on this race. Do vice presidential debates have a big impact on how the public, the lingering image the public has of each of the two candidates?

MR. KOHUT: Well, witness Dan Quayle. Dan Quayle had an opportunity in 1988 to make him–to put aside the doubts that the public had about him. He didn’t do that. We’ll see what, what these candidates do in terms of presenting themselves in prime time to a big audience.

MARGARET WARNER: And Bob Dole’s ’76 performance certainly had a big impact on his lingering image.

MR. KOHUT: Well, it created this image of a tough, if not sometimes mean candidate, and he’s had a lot of trouble overcoming it.

MARGARET WARNER: All right. Andy, thanks a lot.