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October 2004 (Updated by the 15th)




by Jessica Kuzmier

      According to the media, swing voters use the presidential debates as a final mandate on who to vote for. In the 2000 debates between Al Gore and George W. Bush, Al Gore won the first debate but wound up losing the other two, and the election went to now President Bush. The question then becomes whether hinging a vote on the debating process is necessarily a good one.

     With the advent of television, a candidate must not only be a good statesman,, but also has to be media savvy. Of course, this predication always existed to some extent, as there were publications and newspapers in the beginning of the republic. But at the nation’s onset, voting was limited to free male property owners and no one else, so there was a limited segment of society to coddle up to. Not to mention that even if voting were open to more demographics of society, literacy was not widespread, so a newspaper story would not have the punch to knock out a candidate.

     It was with the advent of universal literacy and the widening of the voting base that a candidate had to learn to increase his viability amongst a wider audience; the increase of territory within the country also created new demands on candidates. A candidate had to learn to broaden his appeal to a wider segment of society without looking like he kowtowed to public opinion. He had to sound good, appealing, and forceful.

     Television has added another dimension: the idea of appearing “presidential”. President Bush has commented on his own running mate, claiming that though he’s “not much to look at”, his other qualifications make up for it. There has been endless rounds of commentary on John Edwards’ “young” looks, which seem to equate on some level a lack of gravitas for the job he’s considering. The fact that both George W. Bush and John Kerry look “distinguished”, though one would think “distinguished” is an opinion rather than factual evidence, is a plus side on both candidates, even though looking “distinguished” doesn’t seem to display anything other than having great stylist.

     Presidential” looks are just a synonym of “distinguished”. It has nothing to do with the worthiness of a candidate’s character, or of what his stance on issues are. Nowadays, with the war on terror, presidential looks have to also make the guy seem tough enough to kick the terrorists’ butts but yet look like he has a pedigree education. Again, this has nothing to do with whether one actually can kick the terrorists’ butts, but the format of the debates is designed to show which candidate can convince the swing voters that he’s the tougher guy. One has little idea if a person can be a great statesman from these things. The debates only last a few hours, but you’ll be stuck with the candidate for four years. Television presentations tend to distort a person, depending on the media. Abraham Lincoln may not have been elected if he’d been on TV. He had a long face and suffered from a mental illness. Even back then, he was told to grow a beard. It didn’t do anything to improve or disprove his actual record, but supposedly would improve his image.

     What’s the point of these debates, anyway? After four years, don’t the swing voters have any idea of who to vote for, or are they as confused as CNN depicts them? It seems strange to think that a person who is seriously considering voting is in a qualm of which direction he or she leans, as far as the right or the left. Is it Bush’s last ditch effort to show his war is what America needs? Or will hearing Kerry answer questions convince anyone that he is a viable alternative to the incumbent? It goes without saying that the incumbent generally has the advantage going into a debate; after all, people are more aware of his record than that of a challenger’s. So, why are they bothering? If someone is in that much of a dilemma, why doesn’t he or she just go on the Internet to find their positions on all issues, rather than just what the moderators wish to focus on?

     In the end, it is charisma that will sway a person who is on the fence. Who speaks to this person the most is the real question. It is also the only chance that a candidate has to attack his opponent. An incumbent that has to rely on trashing his opponent, it would seem, is afraid that his own record is not strong enough to speak for itself. A challenger needs to exploit all the points of weakness in the iincumbent. He is like a challenger coming to knock out the champion. He needs a strong offense, the incumbent a strong defense. There is no reason not to disparage a metaphor of game. The prize is the voters’ confidence.

     What does this mean in the long run? By October, which is when the debates are held, most people have a good idea of who they prefer, swing voters included. The real crux with the swing voters is not to help them to choose which candidate, but convince them that whoever they lean towards is worth going to the polls for. There may have been a lot of people who weren’t thrilled with Bush, but would Kerry be a better replacement? Maybe neither candidate is worth the time it takes to get to the polls.. Obviously, if a website stating a candidate’s platform wasn’t enough to convince someone one way or another, something else had to be done to convince people to bother at all.

     In the way that the American constitution is written, the electoral college theoretically selects the president, and not the populace. A candidate has to win by 270 electoral votes in order to be President out of a total of 540, which is why, generally speaking, only two candidates are considered major players in an election. It would be hard to obtain the needed 270 votes if there were six major candidates, or even three; this is why figures such as Ralph Nader are excluded from debates, or from being endorsed enough to appear on all state tickets.

      Obviously, with the playing field automatically being leveled to two contenders, each candidate has to distinguish himself from the other, yet be able to appeal to the widest base possible to capture the needed electorate, especially in “swing” states like Ohio or Florida, which do not necessarily lean Democrat or Republican. The debates are the one major way to get at these key voters, though it would seem that the best way to determine a vote is the candidate’s past performance, whether you are “better off than you were four years ago”, or identify with a general party platform. Most people cast their votes by not voting at all, which is a voice which gets lost amidst all the rhetoric. All the debating in the world has not been able to fix that.


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