Panel I: Do Debates Change Elections?

George Will, Martha Raddatz, Donna Brazile, Newt Gingrich, Chris Dodd and Richard Norton Smith.
3:00 | 10/14/12

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Transcript for Panel I: Do Debates Change Elections?
Do debates change elections? Thanks to our partners at the university of virginia's miller center, we have a panel to discuss it. To my right, as always, george will. To my left, donna brazile who was al gore's campaign manager in 2000. Next to donna, we're joined by two former presidential candidates. Former house speaker newt gingrich, who debated mitt romney countless times while battling him for the republican nomination. chris dodd who squared off with barack obama in 2008. In the presidential primaries. Richard norton smith of george mason university is here. And finally, we're especially pleased to be joined by abc's senior foreign affairs correspondent martha raddatz. Martha expertly moderated the debate thursday night. Buzz feed gave you the nickname of badass supermoderator. So let's give martha a huge round of applause. thank you, thank you, thank you. And as you just saw, we have a great audience here at the newseum. Thanks to you for joining us this morning. The question today, do presidential debates change elections? Do they matter? The answer at first blush seems simple, of course debates matter. The candidates spend weeks, if not months, preparing. Tv audiences are enormous. 67 million for the first meeting between romney and owe what. Afterward, in our twitter-fueled, shortened attention span news cycle, the performances are talked about. Years, even decades later. Here's richard nixon. Ruing the a lack of preparation that led to the performance with jack kennedy 11 years before. Running the schedule is so hard, we didn't learn from the other -- Reporter: Yet, for all the hype, there's little evidence that debates mak much difference in election outcomes. In an nail sis of the ten presidential contests between 1960 and 2008, abc news found just one where a debate appearance seemed to change the election. It was 1980. Are you better off than you were four years ago? Reporter: When president ronald reagan uttered that one line. President obama hopes that one exception is the only one. That debate. What happened? Coverager romney had a good night. I had a bad night. How bad? It's not the first time I had a bad night. What is important is the fundamental of what this race is about haven't changed. Karl rove wrote that the first debate will be seen as the decision point in this election. Do we make too big a deal out of debates? Or does mr. Rove have a point? We make too big a deal in that it's hard to argue that debates test or reveal aptitudes that are pertinent to the performance of presidential duties. Debates are now semiconstitutional events. You cannot become president without participating. Clearly, in close elections, '60, '76, 2000, it's plausible to say they caused enough change to be the margin of difference. With regard to this year's, it's too soon to say whether the surge mitt romney got from his debate performance is enough or not. If it is durable, it will be because what happens in debates that matter, they catalyze and inchoate feeling they had and it becomes articulate, present, and powerful. Donna, you were campaign manager for vice president al gore. How important were those debates? Well, first of all, you notice I was holding my breath when you said that. Didn't want to have an audible sigh. I might have trouble with the handsome men to my left. God forbid what happens if the two of us are ever on "dancing with the stars." I'll take the lead, by the way. There's no question they do matter. Because millions of viewers are tuning in for the first time. They get an opportunity to look at these two men, so far, men, and to take a look at whether or not what they have heard on tv or watched over the past few weeks is actually true. So they matter. And that's why we spent a lot of time rehearsing. Prepping. And trying to get, you know, three months of sound bites into two minutes, so they come across as concise and clear. And energetic. Speaker gingrich, you debated governor romney many times. Widely seen as a strong debater. Then came florida. I'm not anti-immigrant. My father was born in mexico. My wife's father was born in wales. They came to this country. The idea that I'm anti-immigrant is repulsive. Don't use a term like that. A very forceful performance by mitt romney. What did you learn by that performance that president obama needs to know? My wife said if he were as prepared and aggressive with obama as he was -- I won a lot of debates. When it finally came down to the crunch, he did what he had to do. He was very aggressive. He was very assertive. What was a surprise was not that he was as good as he was. People underestimate him. This guy went to harvard business school and harvard law school simultaneously. He's a very hard-working, very methodical person. What surprised me was the emptiness on the other side. What made that debate so startling, romney was better than people expected. And owe what was unbelievably less capable than people expected. It was the matchup that made it extraordinary. One of the points craig shirley made on the 1980 campaign, that may be the one place where clearly the debate was decisive. I think carter may well have won without that debate. The 1960 debate, kennedy suddenly became a peer of nixon's. The vice president versus a young senator. They're virtually even after the first debate. I think that what romney did -- if he had had as bad a debate as obama, we would be sitting here talking about the election being over. That's how big that is. There are two more rounds here. It means romney got himself back into contention in one night. Senator dodd, you debated president obama repeatedly in 2007, as you sought the democratic nomination. You were a big part of one of the most important moments of that series of debates. Let's go to a clip. Failed. We have failed. No, no, no. You said yes, you thought it made sense to do it. No, I didn't, chris. The point is, what are we going to do with all the illegal immigrants? That's a legitimate issue. Driver's license goes too far. Well, you may say that. But what is the identification? If somebody runs into you today that is an undocumented worker -- there's ways of dealing wit it. It's a privilege, not a right. First of all, what is going through your mind in a moment like that? And also, just secondarily, do you buy the suggestion that president obama was not a great debater and was overhyped? A lot of questions there. First of all, I think in that moment, I was asking the question that the audience was asking at that moment. A difficult moment for hillary clinton. Her governor in new york was talking about granting licenses. She was not wanting to put herself at odds with her own governor. I asked a question that a moderator might have asked. I think george has it right. The debates that newt gingrich and I went through in the primary process are different than the ones at the presidential level. We're dealing with constituencies where you have to check certain boxes in order to become a credible candidate. When you get to the presidential debate and have been chosen, issues are still very important. But I think george will has it right. At that point, we're looking for something else. These issues become portals of making decisions about whether the individual is capable of taking on the most important job in the world. They're important. It's about character. Your ability to express the emotions the country is feeling. The difficulties they're going through. There's a significant difference in my view. In terms of how the public looks at these engagements. We're only halfway there. There are six hours of presidential and vice presidential debates. Three hours of yet to come. I think we're getting ahead of ourselves in many ways by determining the race is over. Barack obama is a very talented person. I served on three -- two committees in the senate with him. Spent how many hours in forums. This is a very talented, committed individual who I think won the election in 2008 because he brings a passion and understanding to these issues. I would be very careful about writing him off at this point. In my view. I think he could come back very strongly this coming week and thereafter. Obviously, we're talking about his coming back because of what happened. And clearly, he opened the door and energized the base. The republican base. The independents who may have written him off entirely. Debates are important. What happened a week or so ago is important. But what remains to be done here is equally is not more important. Richard norton smith, dick nixon didn't have to deal with facebook, twitter, cable news. Put this in perspective. How much does that new media change what happens in a debate? I think it transforms the experience of watching and assessing what it is we see. That clip from "saturday night live" makes the point. In 1960, we had a shared experience. Close to half the population sat down. It was the first time this had ever happened. Novelty was a huge factor. We had a lot fewer intermediaries interpreting what we were seeing. The next day we discussed it at the water cooler. "Saturday night live" is our water cooler. The debates, over time, have become an inseparable part of the pop culture. Part of the 24/7 news cycle. My hunch is -- and the other big thing is because of the social media, instead of watching and listening, we're commenting. We're offering our own instant analysis as the debate is unfolding. That has to change what the experience is, what you're getting out of it, what you're putting into it. And my hunch is if you look at, over time, the audiences for the debates in relative terms, compared to population, has diminished. I think correspondingly, to the extent that people see them as scripted entertainment events, i think they give less weight in determining how they vote. Martha, you studied many, many past debates in preparing for your moderating. What did you learn goes into a game-changing moment? I think one of the things is sort of exactly what we're talking about, too. Looking at the camera, were they look away, gesturing in big ways? It's getting the message through throughout the 90 minutes. I love saying this. I completely agree with george will on this. We all do about what it means. It's that 90 minutes. You see those candidates for 90 entire minutes. They have to get the message out. I mean, there were times sitting that table, I could see both of them thinking, what haven't i said? What haven't I said? What haven't I said? Getting them off-message is the challenge. But I do think it's such a fascinating test to see them in that forum. And for the public to see for the first time them in that forum for 90 entire minutes. George, have debates made differences before? Other than 1960? The most consequential debate in history involved two illinois senate candidates. It was one of the seven in the lincoln-douglas debates in freeport when lincoln asked the freeport question. Douglas clearly, and to his detriment endorsed slavery in the territories and much of american history flew. But, yes, they did. Kennedy wins in 1960 by about one vote per precinct. The debate had to make that much difference. 1976, gerald ford seemed to catalyze the belief he was, perhaps, befuddled, when he got crosswise with himself. In 1980, ronald reagan said, there you go again, people said, he's not a madman at all. Perfectly nice fellow. In 1988, when michael dukakis was asked about capital punishment and his wife, people said he's cold, he's a technocrat. And we don't much care for that. In 1992, president bush looked at his watch. And people said, he's detached. He doesn't really care for us. And then, donna, there were the sighs on the part of al gore. People said, he's a bit of a stuffed shirt. In terms of the importance of "saturday night live" gore aides actually made al gore watch "saturday night live's" representations of his debate to show him how he was perceived. Do we make too big a deal of those things? The sigh, the smiles? I mean, when you're preparing someone for these historic gatheri gatherings, you're focused on the substance. Here are the policy positions. What your opponent is saying. You get there, it's stage craft and you're like, the eyes and the movement of the hands. And the split screens. The split screens. I'm sure the president will be advised to look up, smile, and don't roll his eyes. Just stay focused on candy crowley, as a person. And the next debate is more important, because you're connecting with the questioner, the real people at the town hall debate. George mentioned, I was looking at the numbers. 84, reagan botched the first one. He said he was overtrained, overprepared. Not quite ready for the first encounter with walter mondale. And in 2004, when, once again, the negotiations and the bush people said that they wanted the first question on national security. George bush was not prepared. John kerry was. He tightened the race. Speaker gingrich, I want to ask you, the president was criticized for seeming lackluster in his responses. Do you think the stylistic things matter? I think george had it right in the sense that -- character is part of, ultimately, you don't know what crisis will emerge a year from now. The character of the person does matter. You had it right. 90 minutes with no editing, no breaks. You begin to watch these two people interact with the moderator. You get a different sense than you do from tv commercials. I thought romney was helped. Because the obama campaign spent three months portraying him as a person he's not. People saw him and said, wait a second. That's not the guy I have been frightened about. Just as reagan in 1980 was suddenly more reasonable than the carter caricature of him was. So these things do matter, i think. And think the challenge for president obama was -- a little bit like george h.W. Bush -- I got the sense that first night that he wasn't there to compete. He -- you know -- if you wanted to give help the presidency again, it would be all right. He would be happy to show up. He wasn't saying, here's what i have done, here's what I will do, here's why it matters. And that came through. I think obama was a much bigger shock in the first debate than romney was. In thinking about whether these debates are important or should be as important thaas they are, just imagine we have the lincoln-douglas format. First person talked for and hour. The second person talked for an hour and a half. Then the first person responded to that. They did that seven times, without amplified sound. In front of audiences,one of whom could vote for them. Good luck pitching that. Senator dodd, is the debate aftermath just as important? The spin? Oh, sure. The point made earlier about this is -- I suspect, the next cycle of debate will involve interactivity I suppose. Where people will literally have on the screen, not just a split screen of the candidates but actually the comments being made by the public at large, as you continue to debate. We'll see I think a generation greater opportunities for interactivity. The after is critically important. The commentary goes on. We don't have the opportunity to think about what we have seen and react to it. We're being told instantaneously how you're supposed to react to it. That makes a difference. Also how the candidates and their teams react. Just one quick anecdote. There's a bill-signing ceremony with president reagan after the first debate. Very shortly thereafter. I thought I'm going to go down. Not because I want to be at the bill signing. I want to see how the president's reacting. I walked into the oval office. It was as if the night before he had gone to a movie. I'll never forget it. He say, come on in, can I get you a cup of coffee? He was devastated last night. His reaction was, that was last night, this was today. He should move forward. Once the debate is over, move forward. The fact we have been dwelling on it for the last ten days, i don't think it helps. I think you have to move beyond this. Not only how the media deals with it but how the campaigns deal with it can sustain the impressions. They need to put it behind them. We have about a minute left. In this section of the show. Martha, my first impression off the debate was, this is a big night for jason sudeikis. The guy that plays on "saturday night live." Does this weigh on your mind? First of all, let me tell you something. I didn't see paul ryan drinking all that water. Ever. When I was asking, you're so in the moment, you're asking joe biden a question. I think right away, you knew what the strategy was. I think one of the things joe biden did was in the intimate table, very small. He was too big. He was like he was at a campaign event. You could feel that, especially at that table. That joe biden was so aggressive. There were surprises there. I was surprised at paul ryan, that he didn't jump in more. That was clearly the strategy. When you walk off, you're not

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