Nourafshan: Presidential debates and post-truth politics


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As polls show President Obama widening his lead over Mitt Romney in advance of the first debate, scheduled for Wednesday, the stakes for both Obama and Romney are exceptionally high.

Acknowledging the scrutiny the candidates will face in the debates, both campaigns are attempting to lower expectations leading into these final public appearances with election-shifting potential.

Senior Obama strategist David Axelrod released a memo this past week, explicitly identifying Romney’s advantages before the first debate.

“First, just as he was in the primaries, we expect Mitt Romney to be a prepared, disciplined, and aggressive debater. Second, debates — and particularly the first debate — generally favor challengers. Five out of the last six challengers were perceived to win the first debate against an incumbent president.”

While a challenger may have an advantage, Romney also faces the disadvantage of debating one-on-one for the first time in the presidential campaign against a seasoned and highly skilled debater.

Similarly, senior Romney adviser Beth Myers has attempted to hedge expectations for the first debate, noting that “President Obama is a uniquely gifted speaker and is widely regarded as one of the most talented political communicators in modern history.”

She further insists that Obama has an edge over Romney because “voters already believe — by a 25-point margin — that President Obama is likely to do a better job in these debates.”

It is unclear that the expectation of a decisive Obama victory in the debates is an asset, rather than political liability: Obama will need to perform exceedingly well to win the debates, where Romney must surpass comparatively lower expectations.

While the Obama and Romney campaigns disagree on which candidate has a preliminary advantage, both campaigns assert that they have an advantage when it comes to truth and fact.

Albeit paradoxical, in a world of ideologically segregated media, it is entirely possible for two distinct understandings of “fact” to exist simultaneously: The increasingly isolated, insular, and ideological media environment affords modern presidential campaigns unprecedented latitude in conflating opinion with fact.

A Gallup Poll measuring public confidence in mainstream media has shown that trust in “newspapers, television, and radio to report the news accurately and fairly” has decreased dramatically from 72 percent in 1976 to 43 percent in 2010. This data suggest that there remain no neutral arbiters of fact in the public sphere, enabling widely variant interpretations of the same news stories.

Because there are so many media outlets with distinct political biases, people can select news sources that validate their beliefs by contorting facts to accommodate a given political viewpoint, rather than superseding ideology with objective portrayals of fact. With such explicitly partisan media, it is likely that different news outlets will call the same debate for different candidates; it is not unthinkable that Fox News would name Romney the winner of a debate that MSNBC calls for Obama.

Although an increasingly partisan media are problematic for a number of reasons, I am skeptical that this issue will decide the 2012 election: First, the election will not be decided by the extreme ideologues most likely to watch debate analysis by hyper-partisan news sources. Second, several studies have demonstrated that presidential debates rarely influence actual voting behavior: A 2008 study by Gallup found that between 1960 and 2004, debates only affected election outcomes in two presidential contests.

Thus, while the presidential debates may ultimately prove inconsequential, they are the final public appearances with the potential to reverse the trends reflected in virtually all recent polling, which project a landslide victory for Obama in November.

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