Event Summary: How Much Do Campaigns Matter?

October 1, 2004

On the morning after the first presidential debate of the 2004 campaign, experts convened at the Brooking Institution to weigh in on the debate performances of both President Bush and Democratic nominee John Kerry, and to discuss the potential political fallout.

Panelists agreed with early polls and reactions suggesting that Kerry had the upper-hand in last night’s debate at the University of Miami. But they said it would take a few days to truly gauge the debate’s impact on the presidential race.

Brookings Visiting Fellow Anthony Corrado said that an accurate snapshot might be available in about 72 hours, when people have absorbed the debate, the news coverage, and, most importantly, the powerful “debate about the debates”—the full throttle political spinning and talking-points that fill the airwaves following the event. Panelists cautioned against crowning Kerry the debate winner prematurely, alluding to the first presidential debate of the 2000 presidential campaign, when initial reactions painted Vice President Al Gore as the winner, only for voters to later give Bush the nod after paying close attention to the vice president’s frequent and much-maligned sighs.

Brookings Senior Fellow Thomas Mann said that both candidates stuck to their campaign themes during the debate.

“Kerry wanted to return the campaign to a referendum on Bush’s performance, especially in Iraq,” Mann said. “Bush wanted to point out Kerry’s inconsistencies and lack of reliability.”

“I think Kerry had more to gain from this debate,” said New York Times Washington Editor Richard Berke. “But both candidates did perfectly fine in general. There were no big blunders on either side.”

Panelists said that the debate was one of the more substantive in recent memory, with both candidates tackling serious foreign policy issues and presenting voters with real choices.

“You came away with a fairly clear visions for each candidate—the clearest we’ve seen all campaign,” Corrado said. Berke agreed, saying, “It was an interesting and lively debate where issues were discussed and choices clarified.”

Daron Shaw, an associate professor at the University of Texas at Austin and a consultant to the Bush-Cheney campaign, said that Bush’s performance will probably cost him a few percentage points in national polls, and he wondered why Bush didn’t do a better job challenging Kerry on his voting record in the U.S. Senate. Shaw said Kerry’s strong performance may help Kerry shed the reputation of being a “flip-flopper.”

Mann said that Kerry “looked presidential” and “sold himself as a viable alternative” to President Bush.

Although panelists agreed that Kerry may see a slight bounce in polls following his debate performance last night, they debated over whether such fluctuations will be durable enough to make a difference on Election Day. Princeton University Professor Larry Bartels said that the close presidential race means that “even small effects can be significant.” Bartels also presented evidence from previous elections that demonstrate that a candidate’s lead in national polls frequently are reduced by half during the month of October.

Shaw said that, historically, the bounce enjoyed by candidates following a debate seldom exceeds three percentage points, but the change is more durable than other fluctuations in poll numbers. Still, Shaw said the effects can be offset by other events.

“Oftentimes, one candidate’s bounce is offset by the other candidate’s bounce in another debate,” Shaw said, adding that the decision to schedule the debates so closely together could make it difficult for any candidate to build momentum off one strong performance.

University of Wisconsin-Madison Professor Kenneth Goldstein said that the election will still center around partisan dispositions, the war in Iraq, and the economy—three things that neither candidate can do much to change before the election. Goldstein, who focuses on political advertising, said that an accurate measure of the debate’s effect will be if the campaigns redirect advertising in various swing states.

“In a week or so, if the advertising dollars start going more to states that Bush should be defending, you’ll know that Kerry had a good debate,” Goldstein said. “If you see advertising dollars continuing to flow out of Arizona, Colorado, Michigan, Louisiana, and Arkansas, we’ll know that Bush’s lead has not changed much from the debates.”

Corrado said that there is still a long way to go in this election and “you’ll have to wait to see parts two and three of this debate to see what happens to Luke Skywalker.”