Lehrer: People watch debates to confirm predispositions about candidates

Longtime presidential debate moderator Jim Lehrer engages the audience as he shares insights from the past six presidential debates Wednesday morning in the Amphitheater. Photo by Lauren Rock.

Laurence Léveillé | Staff Writer

Presidential debates serve a greater purpose than just helping the public decide whom they want as president.

In his only solo appearance of the week, retired “PBS NewsHour” anchor Jim Lehrer shared his thoughts on presidential debates and criticized this year’s Republican primary debates during Wednesday’s morning lecture.

A storm reached its peak a few minutes into the lecture, with a momentary hiatus after heavy winds caused the onstage backdrop to collapse. Audience members were asked to make room for those standing at the sides of the Amphitheater.

“Presidential debates — that’s what we came to talk about today,” said Lehrer once the lecture began again, “and we’re going to talk about it.”

The 2012 presidential debates are just as important as any of those that have occurred every election year. They are the only moments during campaigns when presidential candidates stand side by side and discuss the same topics, Lehrer said.

It is important to remember that by the time the debates come along, it is a month before Election Day. By that point, 90 percent of people have already decided for whom they will vote or toward whom they lean most strongly, Lehrer said. Despite that, people still watch the debates.

Instead of watching them to determine whom they will vote for, he said, people watch because the debates confirm their predispositions about the candidates.

“It’s not necessarily a deciding thing, but a confirming thing of a suspicion you already have or a good feeling you already have a about a person,” Lehrer said.

The confirmations people look for happen through the candidates’ gestures. Though the substance of the candidates’ answers is important, the gestures have a greater effect.

Lehrer used several examples to make his point, including his favorite. In a debate between President George H.W. Bush, Gov. Bill Clinton and Ross Perot, moderated by Carole Simpson, Bush looked at his watch seven times.

During the debates between Vice President Al Gore and Gov. George W. Bush, Gore sighed while Bush was giving answers.

“The people who listened to the 2000 debate between Gore and Bush on the radio thought Gore won that hands down,” Lehrer said. “The people who saw it on television thought Bush won or Gore lost.”

In another instance, Sen. John McCain led in the polls before his first presidential debate against then-Sen. Barack Obama in Mississippi. But McCain’s inability to interact with Obama gave people a negative feeling. At the end of the debate, Obama was in the lead and maintained the lead for the rest of the election season, Lehrer said.

“Body language is just as important as the spoken language in those debates,” he said.

Debates are also important because they can give people an idea of whether they can imagine a candidate sitting in the Oval Office, making decisions that affect lives and dealing with unexpected events.

When President George W. Bush was elected, Lehrer said, there were not many huge issues. Within months, he was dealing with Sept. 11 and the two wars that ensued.

Obama also found himself dealing with unfamiliar issues. The financial crisis began as the 2008 presidential debates were beginning. It was a topic Lehrer tried to ask both Obama and McCain about during the debates.

“They talked about everything but that because they really were not grounded in the subject,” Lehrer said.

A majority of Obama’s term has been focused on issues involving jobs, housing and the financial crisis, Lehrer said. Whether Obama is reelected, his first term will always be remembered for the unexpected events, he said.

After discussing the importance of presidential debates, Lehrer made three points of criticism about this year’s primary debates and explained what should change for the 2016 primaries.

“Some of them resembled game shows, some of them were embarrassing,” he said.

In most cases, the two leading candidates in the polls were placed center-stage and would get 15 to 20 minutes to speak before others had a chance.

But once each candidate is onstage, Lehrer said, they all should have an equal amount of time to speak. Instead of determining positions based on polls, they should be drawn, he said.

People also should remember that the purpose of the primary debates is different from the fall debates. Primaries help parties decide on their presidential nominee.

“So let’s see all of them,” Lehrer said. “Let’s see all of the candidates and see what their different views are about the same thing.”

Lehrer suggested that moderators ask candidates the same questions and give all of them the chance to respond. Although there would probably be fewer topics covered in the time allotted, it would help the process and the voters make a decision, Lehrer said.

One of the last points Lehrer made about the primary debates is that they are not meant to be a source of entertainment. But this year, they became mini pep rallies, part of an event, he said.

The primary debates are important and should be treated that way, Lehrer said.

“Are they events that are being televised or are they debates that are being televised?” Lehrer said. “And I take the position that they are debates, and they’re for the television audience.”

Photo by Lauren Rock.


Editor’s note: This Q&A has been edited for clarity and length.

Q: Could you talk a little bit about rule-setting going in and how involved the candidates are, and when you mentioned it in 2008, they were supposedly going to mix it up a little bit. How did they decide? How do you decide what those rules are?

A: Well, in the fall debates, in the presidential debates, there’s a Commission on Presidential Debates, which is a bipartisan commission. It’s got, I don’t know, a dozen or so members — half Republicans, half Democrats, and then they have some nonpartisan types — and they are the ones who set the format, and then it’s evolved over several election cycles. There used to be some heavy negotiations among the commission and the representatives of the candidates about what the format should be, etc. Some of the things, for instance, the temperature in the hall, can be a subject of great negotiation. Going back to Nixon-Kennedy — remember when Richard Nixon perspired? One of the things they found out afterward — you know he had been in the hospital; he had a fever — that Bobby Kennedy had made sure that the temperature in the TV studio where they were doing it was a little hotter than it had to be, and as a result of that, every debate I’ve ever done, it’s like running a debate inside a meat locker. It’s ice cold. If you perspire, clearly you cannot be the president of the United States, and so there’s a consequence. But then, I remember one set — and I can’t remember the candidates, and if I could, I wouldn’t tell you — one of them wanted it to be 64 degrees where he was standing, and the other candidate wanted it to be 58 degrees where he was standing, and they were standing from (gestures) here to there. The mechanical people said, “There’s no way in the world we can do that.” “Do it.” So they figured it out. They had some way. I don’t know what they did exactly. Things are less negotiated now than they used to be. Whatever the commission decides, for the most part, the candidates go along with it.

Q: Was there one moment when you were truly shocked by what happened during the debate?

A: Truly shocked? I was shocked afterward as my daughter, Amanda, told me what happened. I was a little shocked about that — but during a debate, no. You mean something somebody said when I was on stage? No. Not that would fall under the category of “shocked.”

Q: When you think back at your impressions of a candidate in debate, what, if anything, can you associate to their later performance as a leader?

A: Well, as I said, there’s no more time for any questions. That’s the hardest thing in the world. I think that, you’ve got to keep in mind, that in our modern world, a president has to be able to communicate in an articulate way on television — like it or not. He or she is going to have to be able to say to the American people, “Here is what happened. Here is what I want you to do.” It isn’t that the idea will sell it on its own. It won’t. A person has to articulate it. The big joke — it’s not a joke. We were talking about the founders to begin with. You know, Thomas Jefferson spoke like this, “Ha, ha how’re you?” He had a very high-pitched voice. How well do you think he would do at Wake Forest University at a particular presidential debate? The complaint about that, as I say, is back to the weather problem, so if a person cannot articulate well in a debate, chances are he or she cannot articulate well as president, and it is part of the testing. It’s on the list. Everybody can weigh it whatever way they want to, but I think it’s an understandable and legitimate test. I didn’t answer your question, now, did I? Next time.

Q: A couple of questions about how to get beyond sound bites and giving the candidates more time to respond to questions.

A: Well, the ideal thing — and the debate commission, I think, has made great strides of this, and we’ll find out in 2012 whether they have made anymore — which is have time, instead of having rigid time that no candidate can speak in a consecutive way for more than a minute or two, but in a context where you can open things up for seven, eight, nine, 10, even 15 minutes and pursue a subject — not think of it in terms of questions but think of it in terms of subject. “Let’s talk about taxes.” And then both candidates could talk back and forth; the moderator could guide it in way, making sure that nobody makes a bunch of speeches — because you could stop that from happening with internal rules — but you could have a real dialogue between the candidates about a particular subject. That is where the debate commission is moving. We’ll see what happens.

Q: How will, or have, the Internet and social media changed the debates and who watches?

A: You know, I honestly don’t know, Jeff. In terms of the fall debates, they already have huge audiences. Social media, my guess, enhances the size of those audiences, will continue to do that in 2012. We’ll see. I think the debates are those rare events that are not television shows. They are events that lead to the election of the president of the United States, and they are seen that way. Social media, the contribution about, “Oh, well, would that influence the questions a moderator might ask?” or anything like that. I doubt that would happen.

Q: Talk a little bit about instant analysis and journalism, covering the debates and the impact that it has on public perception.

A: Well, it’s a whole game. They have, in these debate locations, a spin room, and it’s a huge room where the people who are covering the debate, the reporters from all over the world, and the candidates’ representatives go into the spin room, and they all say, “My guy won,” and they talk about it, talk about it, and it’s very, very important. There have been some studies done of this — none of which strikes me as particular — well, they’re interesting, and that’s about as far as I’ll go. They’re trying to measure the impact of the spent. It’s a little more difficult with the debates because most people watch the debates. Well, if you haven’t watched the debate, and the first thing you find out about the debate is coverage of it. In other words, a story that you read or a television story you heard or a radio story that can plant the idea. “Oh, Sammy Sue wiped out Billy Bob in this debate.” Well, that’s the first thing you didn’t hear about it. If you didn’t watch it yourself, then that could affect it. The other thing is it’s like people who go to the Super Bowl or watched the Super Bowl on television — they still want to read the game story the next day. There’s been evidence of that. Even though you watched the debate, some people are interested in what the spin is — not the spin but the reaction, that’s a bad word, “spin” — but what the reaction is and to kind of help them understand. “Did I get that right? Is that what Candidate A said?” So you follow up that way. I think the press coverage is less important to the debates because so many people watch them on their own, and they see the real thing.

Q: Would you consider, and have you been approached about, being a moderator in this year’s presidential debates?

A: I thought I could get through this whole thing without that. Here’s the problem, as I explained to some folks earlier: I got caught in a collision of my own rhetoric. I said when I wrote the book Tension City that that was it. I’m not going to do anymore debates. Done 11. Have the psychic scars to prove it. Had the satisfaction. I do feel really good about it. I gave it the office, in other words. But then I also put in the book, which I really believe with all my heart and soul, that if somebody invites you or asks you to moderate a presidential debate, I think you have an obligation to do it — unless you have a really good reason for not. It’s a public service. It’s like getting a draft notice and saying, “You know, I don’t think I’ll go.” I’ve said to everybody that I’ve done it, and I don’t know what will happen if I do get invited. I’ll deal with it when the time comes.

—Transcribed by Jennifer Shore