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Arts and Humanities

Presidential debates: how to watch and why

Carolina’s experts urge voters to go beyond debate soundbites, to think about how candidates prepare and to consider how debates could influence the 2020 election.

A cartoon of a donkey and elephant at debate podiums.

For the first time in many years, presidential debates may influence the election outcome.

That’s the thinking of some Carolina faculty experts who urge voters to watch the debates and listen thoughtfully. The first of three debates between Joe Biden and Donald Trump is Sept. 29. Vice-presidential candidates Kamala Harris and Mike Pence face off on Oct. 7.

“This time, the debates should be super consequential,” said Marc Hetherington, Raymond Dawson Distinguished Bicentennial Professor of Political Science in Carolina’s College of Arts & Sciences. He thinks that the debates, despite high polarization, could incrementally influence some voters.

“A lot of the political science shows, especially over the last dozen years or so, that debates don’t make much difference as far as preferences for the candidates are concerned. That seems crazy, right? Because everybody’s interested in them. What’s changed over the years is we’re so polarized. We’re so welded to our side that anything that involves persuading people to change sides is almost out of habit.

“Unfortunately, there are so few people who haven’t made up their minds by now that we just don’t see the same spike that for decades took place after good or bad debate performances.”

But, with so few swing voters, any incremental change could have huge consequences for the election outcome.

Mark McNeilly, professor of the practice of marketing in Carolina’s Kenan-Flagler Business School, agrees.

He cites an Aug. 28 YouGov poll showing only 8% of registered voters remain undecided. “I take two things from that: A big part of the candidate’s debate strategy will focus on mobilizing his base, and the debates remain one of their remaining opportunities to swing enough of the 8% to win,” McNeilly said. “To do that, both candidates will attack their opponent’s perceived weaknesses, create fear about what their rival’s election will bring and simultaneously position themselves positively based on the issues that matter to their followers.”

The potential to peel off some of the 8% is real, at least on one side. Hetherington and his colleagues in the political science department found through their research polls that Republicans who fear getting sick with the coronavirus are less likely to follow party cues on opening the economy, wearing masks and other pandemic-related issues.

Learning from history

“Debate in general is one precondition for a good democracy,” said Christian Lundberg, associate professor from the communication department in the College of Arts & Sciences. “Unless people understand the perspectives of both sides and the multiple sides across the political spectrum and understand what differences they offer, you can’t make a meaningful choice. The problem is our media environment makes it a lot more difficult for us to get the things that we ought to get out of the debate.”

Lundberg’s measuring stick is the seven debates in 1858 between Republican Abraham Lincoln and Democrat Stephen Douglas, in which the men spoke independently with time for rebuttal. Citizens read debate transcripts with great interest instead of consuming the memes, media soundbites and echo-chamber opinions of today’s post-election environment. The debates were meaningful with reasonably substantial engagement, Lundberg said.

Preparation and tactics

So, how are the candidates preparing and what tactics will they use?

“A debate is not a quiz show. It’s not Jeopardy. It’s not necessarily even about producing answers on policy details. A debate is an opportunity for messaging. If there are 10 questions in the debate, that’s 10 opportunities for your message and to have it resonate with an audience,” said Lundberg, who coaches some candidates on debating.

Few viewers watch entire debates in an engaged way, so the candidates will aim to dictate media coverage. Next-day news coverage is how most people will learn what happened. Lundberg said that with media as the primary filter, voters miss possible benefits of debates.

Social media also filter results. “Candidates are reposting, tweeting, driving messages and favorable coverage, taking snippets that were particularly favorable for them and potentially creating advertising,” he said.

What about the issues?

Viewers will also see tactics aimed at addressing issues important to each candidate’s voter base, said McNeilly, a former marketing executive and author of two books based on the ancient Chinese classic on strategy, “Sun Tzu’s Art of War.”

McNeilly points to a Pew Research pollshowing that Trump voters consider the economy, violent crime, immigration and gun control as the most important issues. “The economy was a Trump strong point, but COVID-19’s impact has taken that off the table. However, he may attack Biden by saying Biden favors a national lockdown, which would constrain the economy. He will say Biden is weak on crime and urban unrest while Trump represents law and order. Trump will also attempt to position Biden as being for open borders and confiscating guns, both key issues for Trump’s base,” McNeilly said.

For Biden’s base, healthcare, COVID-19 and racial and ethnic inequality are key issues. McNeilly said that Biden will hit Trump on mishandling the pandemic and position Trump as being biased against minorities and as anti-immigration.

“Beyond policy, I expect each will launch personal attacks on their opponent,” McNeilly said. “Trump will use ‘Sleepy Joe’ as a way of bringing attention to Biden’s age and perceived cognitive issues. Biden will make the case that Trump’s behavior and style make him unfit for the office of the presidency.”

Hetherington agreed. “The Democrats might be able to turn off some Republican partisanship at this point and remind them that we’re in the middle of a pandemic and 200,000 people are dead as a result of it, and the president has not done well relative to the rest of the world in providing leadership.

“One question is how much time either will use to paint a positive picture of America’s future under their leadership. I expect not a lot,” McNeilly said.

Expectations and lessons learned

People usually determine who won a debate by whether a candidate met or exceeded expectations, and those expectations are generally low, the experts said.

“One interesting sidelight is, by attacking Biden’s mental acuity, Trump actually makes Biden’s debate performance easier because people’s expectations are likely to be so low. If he doesn’t drool on himself, he may well be kind of declared the winner by the people. It’s a strangely risky strategy.”

Hetherington sees some potential parallels to the 2000 debates between George Bush and Al Gore. “Most people who score debates based on the points made would say Gore ran circles around Bush, but Bush didn’t crumble. He didn’t fail, which a lot of people expected. Therefore, he was kind of seen as the winner, regardless of what the scorecard shows.”

Viewers should watch for significant differences in the candidates’ debate preparation, Lundberg said. To illustrate the differences, he describes a post-2016 election discussion at the Kennedy School of Government.

“Hillary Clinton’s campaign manager said then, ‘It was shocking that we didn’t win because we had a lot more detail and a lot more nuance.’ Democrats do that when they think about debate. For them, debate is about litigating the substance of policy,” Lundberg said. “They’re reticent to attack as aggressively as the Republicans. They feel like they get a lot more mileage out of talking about details. Republicans approach a debate as about an opportunity to ping your base.”

While Democrats tend to be more detail oriented and offer lots of information, Lundberg said, Republicans generally are more disciplined about using debates to repeat their messages. “Frankly, Republicans put a lot more time and effort into thinking and strategizing. And that’s why even in an instance where Democrats might be in a better policy position, Republicans tend to outperform,” he said.

President Trump is an exception. Lundberg said that Trump’s style is largely punching without an overarching strategy and waiting for times when he can either brand an opponent or create enthusiasm or momentum for himself by attacking on favorite themes such as immigration, China or the Middle East.

Don’t forget: Harris and Pence

The vice-presidential debate puts factors such as age, race and gender in play.

Hetherington said vice-presidential debates usually matter even less than presidential debates. Biden’s age makes 2020 different. “Biden is in his late 70s. It’s much more important for Harris to be able to demonstrate that she is ready to step up to the job at a moment’s notice,” he said.

McNeilly agrees, saying the debate is more important than prior ones as Harris is seen as the ‘POTUS-in-waiting,’ given Biden’s age.

The experts also foresee the candidates attacking with different styles.

“I anticipate Pence attacking Harris’s records and statements and focusing on issues important to Trump’s base. I don’t think he will use Trump’s nickname tactic. That’s not his style,” McNeilly said. Pence should avoid disparaging a woman’s ability in his comments about Harris, Hetherington added.

Vice-presidential candidates, especially for the challenger party, usually attack, and with her background as a prosecutor, Harris is well suited to that role. However, Hetherington said that Harris should be careful because research suggests that women and men are held to different standards when it comes to likability.

“Women are sometimes perceived as unlikable for doing things men are expected to do. It’s a balancing act for her, and that’s because the public is the way that it is, not because it’s how it should be. She’s going to have to balance her ability to attack the Trump administration with not falling into tropes and stereotypes about women.”

McNeilly said that Harris will likely go after Pence’s leadership of the coronavirus taskforce and his prior record as governor, but her main focus will be on Trump’s record and character. “She will also likely question how Pence could loyally serve under him in good conscience,” he said.

Improvements: listening and demanding more

“A big problem in today’s American politics is we don’t listen to the other side. We simply don’t,” Hetherington said. “As soon as someone connected to the other party starts speaking it’s like we stick our fingers in our ears and hum so that we can’t hear them and, for a democracy, that’s terrible. A lot of good ideas are getting lost by our unwillingness to listen,” Lundberg said.

Lundberg considers the debates as opportunities for voters to think about contributing to what he calls a demand-side solution.

“We need to demand more of debates, to listen closely and to hold people accountable for what they say,” he said. “Until we as a citizenry demand deeper debates where details are provided and until we have moderators, formats, etc., that actually invite people to engage across lines of difference, debates are going to be largely a pretext for repeating messages and driving media coverage.”

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