Union University

Union University Department of Political Science

Department of Political Science



How to Grade the Debates

Sean Evans, Chair and Associate Professor of Political Science
Sep 26, 2008

Let’s get ready to rumble! In tonight’s “Main Event,” heavyweights John McCain and Barack Obama go mano a mano in the first of three presidential debates with Joe Biden and Sarah Palin providing the undercard match next Thursday. However, the difference between a boxing match and the presidential debates is that we, the American voter, have the opportunity to watch the fight and score it from home. So as you take out your scorer’s card, here are some things to consider.

First, who provides the most logical, coherent answer, critique and/or rebuttal? Unfortunately, this is the least used and least relevant criteria because the debates are not an Oxford-style debate. The candidates answer the question they want, rather than the one asked, and are so programmed that they just recite the relevant parts of their stump speech. Moreover, viewers’ selective perception influences their decision as most voters believe the candidate closest to their views is most logical.

Second, who meets their media expectations? Due to Obama’s previous debate performances combined with the content of the first debate (foreign policy) and format of the second debate (town hall) which favor McCain, the media expects McCain to win handily. Thus, a draw for Obama is a win because McCain did not meet expectations. Similarly, the untested Palin should easily overcome her low expectations. However, McCain should close the debates well since expectations will be lower due to the content (domestic policy) and higher expectations for Obama based on the first two performances.

On another level, one could argue that both the “inexperienced” Obama and Palin win the expectations game by default, assuming no gaffes, because appearing on the stage legitimizes them and makes them look presidential or vice-presidential.

Third, who overperforms in the debate relative to their position in the pre-debate polls? Using the pre-debate poll as a baseline, compare that support to the percentage of people who think each candidate “won” the debate in post-debate polls. The candidate who exceeds their pre-debate numbers the most is the winner because he impressed more undecided and less committed voters. Thus, since Obama leads McCain 48-44% in the Real Clear Politics poll of polls, Obama needs at least 48% of the public to believe that he “won” the debate while McCain needs 44% to believe he “won.” And since Obama leads in the polls, McCain has the best chance to overperform.

Fourth, which candidates achieve their political goals? McCain must distance himself from Bush and the Republicans, reinforce his bipartisan credentials, and keep his temper under control. Obama must connect McCain to Bush to claim the “change” mantle while showing a presidential demeanor and connecting with people. If they are successful, they win regardless of the polls.

Fifth, who avoids the gaffe? In debates, the best offense is a good defense so candidates aspire to avoid mistakes because debates rarely affect election outcomes. Richard Nixon rallied from bad make-up in 1960, Gerald Ford overcame a claim that Poland is not under the influence of the Soviet Union in 1976, and Al Gore recovered from the sighs and eye rolls in 2000 to run close races while Ronald Reagan rebounded from looking tired and confused in the first debate to win in a landslide in 1984.

The one exception is Reagan’s debate with Jimmy Carter in 1980 where Carter’s reference to consulting his young daughter, Amy, on arms control policy led to ridicule that further damaged Carter’s image a week before the election and he did not have time to recover.

Finally, a dose of realism. Candidates who win debates do not necessarily win the election and any bounce a candidate gets from the debate will dissipate as intervening events and different issues cause voters to reconsider their vote. So my advice is to use the debates to learn about the policies and temperament of the candidates because the main event is not tonight, but November 4th.

Originally appeared in the Sept. 26 edition of the Jackson Sun