Commentary: Ideas Win Debates

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Anchor: If the opinion polls are right, John Kerry won all three presidential debates. WNYC’s Brian Lehrer has some thoughts on why, and why so many pundits got it wrong.

Brian: Last week, after the second Bush-Kerry debate, I was invited onto a cable news channel to do something I had never done before: post-debate TV punditry. The experience gave me a new appreciation for what a curious enterprise punditry is.

On the surface, it seems simple enough. I was there to say who I thought won the debate. But they didn’t really care who I personally preferred. Mostly, they wanted to know who I thought was more impressive to swing voters in swing states.

Not being in a swing state and not personally knowing any swing voters in swing states, they were really asking me to predict how people quite unlike me were likely to react.

I took my best guess, but doing so made me take a fresh look at the criteria pundits use to calculate who wins debates. And I now suspect that this year, they were largely the wrong ones.

There may be no better example of this than a moment on ABC last month, when Cokie Roberts and Newsweek’s Fareed Zakaria agreed that you could watch the debates with the sound off and know who won, which I not only disagree with but also find insulting. Why insulting? It means those pundits believe that ordinary Americans are deaf to the issues and care more about how someone swaggers or scowls or looks taking notes, than about what their health care plan or tax policy says. Of course, body language matters to some degree, and I realize some of this is sub-conscious, but analysis of all that personality-oriented subtext has come to dominate post-debate analysis, dumb it down, and as it turns out, just make the pundits wrong.

You see, there’s been a pattern this debate season of the analysts on network TV saying right afterwards that Bush and Cheney did better in these debates than the polls have turned out to show.

I was guilty of this too. After the final debate Wednesday night, I thought Bush won. Why? I thought bush’s sarcastic zingers were more damning, and I thought Kerry looked more defensive and detached from the audience. I still think those things, but the polls have proved me wrong about their meaning. Kerry won, and by a lot, if the polls are right…. so I must have been asking the wrong questions or watching the debate the wrong way. Luckily, no one put me on TV after that debate.

Why did Kerry win? Now I think the answer is so obvious we pundits were too cynical to see it. Average Americans on Wednesday simply listened to the candidates’ answers on jobs and health care because these issues affect their lives - and they apparently decided that they preferred Kerry’s answers. I know it’s a radical concept in the television age to suggest that content or policy matter anymore, but there seems to be no other explanation.

So here’s some advice to pundits more experienced than myself and who are likely to do a lot more of this than I am in the future. Next time, instead of suggesting that we watch TV with the sound off, advise us to listen to the debate on the radio. Maybe even do so yourselves. Just listen carefully to the answers, without the color of someone’s suit or the cut of his jaw to distract you. And afterwards, just tell us who you think had the better ideas.

Anchor: WNYC’s Brian Lehrer. You can hear his call-in show weekdays at 10am.