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Presidential debates influential, then and now

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I have watched all three of the presidential debates, and like most people tuning in, I am not an undecided voter.

So why do so many Americans spend three October evenings watching two middle-aged men yell and interrupt each other? I keep watching because it is quality entertainment. Watching President Barack Obama and Mitt Romney shake hands and then tear each other to shreds for an hour and a half is fantastic television. It is like watching a guilt-free reality show.

But that got me thinking. If I, along with many other Americans, am tuning into the debates for the snarky comebacks and witty remarks rather than the actual political issues being covered, do the debates really impact the election results? From my research, I learned that the debates actually do matter.

Many people know something about the candidates from glancing at newspaper headlines, but for some Americans, the debates are the first times they see and hear their potential president directly address them live on camera. Good stage presence means a lot when an election is as tight as this race.

People remember a bad debate. The media made sure of that by throwing Obama under the bus after the first debate in this current election cycle. And in a 1992 presidential debate, Bill Clinton vs. George H.W. Bush, Bush was bashed by all of the media outlets for checking his watch during one of Clinton’s speeches. That moment of poor judgment by Bush clearly hasn’t been forgotten; if you begin typing the words “Bush checks” into Google, a video of the incident appears on the screen, and this was a debate that happened 20 years ago.

One might argue that the 1980 election, Jimmy Carter vs. Ronald Reagan, was influenced the most by a presidential debate. Reagan’s closing remarks, in which he asked the American people, “Are you better off than you were four years ago?” made a strong final point. Many still say this single comment ended up giving Reagan a lot of the undecided voters and helped him secure the presidency.

Now let us return to the present for an election that is just around the corner. One major error I noticed in all three presidential debates was the absence of social issues. If women truly are the most sought-after undecided voters, as many news outlets have been claiming, I think it was a mistake that the debates did not include a night for the candidates to cover birth-control and the gay marriage amendment. The third debate, focusing on foreign policy, just seemed to be a combination of the first two debates; the evening would have been better spent on the more controversial social issues. If you want to coax the undecided voter to check your name on the ballot, you need to address their concerns, which means that social issues merit some attention too, not just economic and national security issues.

This is going to be an incredibly close election, and come Nov. 6, the wait will be over. Let’s hope the undecided voter has heard enough from the candidates to feel that whomever he or she votes for will be the best man for the job.

Jocelyn Sarvady ’15 sarvady@stolaf.edu is from Atlanta, Ga. She majors in American studies with a concentration in family studies.