Wednesday, September 29, 2004

Paul Krugman - "Swagger vs. Substance"

Paul Krugman...well, words escape me...which is a problem for a blog. What he writes in his column Swagger vs. Substance is maddening because it's probably true:
Let's face it: whatever happens in Thursday's debate, cable news will proclaim President Bush the winner. This will reflect the political bias so evident during the party conventions. It will also reflect the undoubted fact that Mr. Bush does a pretty good Clint Eastwood imitation.

But what will the print media do? Let's hope they don't do what they did four years ago. Interviews with focus groups just after the first 2000 debate showed Al Gore with a slight edge. Post-debate analysis should have widened that edge. After all, during the debate, Mr. Bush told one whopper after another - about his budget plans, about his prescription drug proposal and more. The fact-checking in the next day's papers should have been devastating.

But as Adam Clymer pointed out yesterday on the Op-Ed page of The Times, front-page coverage of the 2000 debates emphasized not what the candidates said but their "body language." After the debate, the lead stories said a lot about Mr. Gore's sighs, but nothing about Mr. Bush's lies. And even the fact-checking pieces "buried inside the newspaper" were, as Mr. Clymer delicately puts it, "constrained by an effort to balance one candidate's big mistakes" - that is, Mr. Bush's lies - "against the other's minor errors."

The result of this emphasis on the candidates' acting skills rather than their substance was that after a few days, Mr. Bush's defeat in the debate had been spun into a victory.

Indeed, looking back to polling at that time, thanks to our OCD polling guru, Gore was ahead by an average of about 2 points leading up to the first debate, which was held on October 3, 2000. After the debate, 5 polls were conducted asking people who they felt won the debate. Results revealed a consensus: Gore won. (ABC: Gore by 3; Gallup: Gore by 7; NBC: Gore by 10; CBS: Gore by 14; Newsweek: Gore by 11.) But in the polls following the debate, Al Gore was unable to reap any benefits from this win. In fact, as a result of the post debate analysis, Gore went from 2 points up on October 6 to about 1 point behind Bush on October 11. As further evidence of the importance of debates in the presidential race and the speed with which things can change, before the first debate Gore was up by 2, after the last debate, a mere 2 weeks later, Bush was up by 3.


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