When the first presidential debate concludes on Tuesday evening, an orgy of spin and instant analysis will ensue. None of it will matter at all. (Except, of course, Slate’s instant analysis, which will be available Tuesday evening in ” Ballot Box .”)
And when the spinning is over, Al Gore will likely be the consensus “winner” of the debates—almost regardless of what happens during the actual encounter.
Why? Because the inhabitants of spin alley, and the TV reporters who serve as their echo chamber, have been overwhelmed by the speed of modern polling. While professional Democrats and Republicans in Boston will drone through their talking points, TV commentators will vamp for 20 or 30 minutes as the networks’ pollsters conduct telephone surveys about who debate viewers thought “won” the contest. Then the commentators will adopt the poll results as wisdom, and the “losing” spinners will be left spitting into the wind. That’s the way it was in the past two elections and the way it will be again.
There was a time—in 1976 certainly, but in 1980 and 1984 as well—when the post-debate spin actually helped shape journalistic opinion, even public opinion. But reaching a conclusion on which candidate is ahead, or has performed better, has always made ostensibly neutral reporters uncomfortable, and they’re very happy to seek refuge in the apparent objectivity of polls. Knowing that this is their plan, they simply kill a half-hour or so until the poll results are available. (Wouldn’t want to “go with your gut” only to find a few minutes later that 63 percent of other people’s “guts” went the other way.) The rest of us can use this time to visit the bathroom or raid the fridge.
Here’s where the Gore advantage comes in. The post-debate polls are affected by two key factors, both of which move in the same direction in this campaign. First, you don’t have to have been a psychology major to know that most poll respondents will conclude that the candidate they favored before the debate performed better during the debate. If Gore’s leading in the polls come Tuesday, he is that much more likely to come out ahead.
But even if Bush is slightly ahead, as he is today in some surveys, this factor will be outweighed by a second: Gore polls much better among women than among men, and substantially more women will likely watch the debate than men. In 1996, 54 percent of the three-network debate audience was female. This year the gender gap could be even wider, thanks to the male-oriented Fox network’s decision not to broadcast any of the debates and the fact that at least three of the four debates will be competing against major-league baseball games, including one on some NBC stations Tuesday.
None of this, of course, rules out a Bush “win” Tuesday night. A dramatic moment at Gore’s expense could easily overcome these factors. But in seven election cycles of televised presidential and vice-presidential debates—22 encounters in all—there have been perhaps only four such moments: Nixon’s make-up crisis, Ford’s “I don’t believe that the Poles consider themselves dominated by the Soviet Union,” Reagan’s “There you go again,” and Bentsen’s “You’re no Jack Kennedy.” Absent a fifth, the deck is stacked for Al Gore.