Presidential Debates: What Politicians Don't Understand, Why Oddsmakers Are Wrong

Cory Bennett
National Journal

The Political Landscape is a weekly podcast where we discuss the news of the day with leading experts.

The first presidential debate was this week, and consensus in the media and in polling data is that Mitt Romney beat out Barack Obama going away. On this week's podcast, we explore some of the reasons that incumbent presidents suffer from unrealistic expectations in debates, and how presidential candidates have misused the debate platform over the years.

Alan Schroeder is a journalist, presidential debate historian, and the author of the book "Presidential Debates: Fifty Years of High Risk Television." In the first half of this week's podcast, Schroeder explains that presidential debates are mostly about appearance over substance. Every politician thinks that if you read a transcript of their debate that they won on substance. But as history shows, winning on substance is a false victory. As Schroeder writes in his book, "Winning a debate on points is one thing; giving the voters some music to dance to is another." The line is in reference to the debates between John Kerry and George Bush in 2004. Kerry won on points. Bush understood the theatricality of the situation. Schroeder thinks both Romney and Obama can learn some lessons from past politician's debate shortcomings. 

Missing in much of the hyperbolic post-debate coverage is any historical context. National Journal's White House reporter George Condon is our resident historical expert on the president and has covered Washington for decades. The Thursday before the debate, George wrote a piece, "Why Incumbents Lose Presidential Debates." Oddmakers had Obama as the favorite, but Condon knew that oddsmakers have made that mistake before. He joins us in the second half of the podcast to explain why.

Check out last week's episode on the protests in the Middle East. 

Check out all past episodes of The Political Landscape.