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Tonight's Debate: The Tyranny Of The Polls

In tonight’s debate, the candidates will be asked questions from “uncommitted” voters who will represent, by Gallup’s calculation, the demographic makeup of the electorate.  Most of the griping about this format will probably center on the rule preventing follow-up questions from either the voters or the moderator – or, for that matter, the candidates themselves.  It’s a format made to order for prepared responses that have been pre-tested on focus groups.

But I have a different complaint: the limit on the questioners to uncommitted voters. First of all, the very notion of the uncommitted voter is a fiction of opinion polls. It assumes that people who tell polls they are voting one candidate rather than another are incapable at this point of changing their minds on the basis of viewing a debate – an assumption belied by the results of the second Carter-Ford debate in 1976 when Ford declared there was “no Soviet domination of Eastern Europe” or by the lone Carter-Reagan debate of 1980 when Reagan finally assured many voters (including those who told pollsters they were voting for Carter) that he was not a madman.

Secondly, I wonder whether a voter who at this point says he or she is “uncommitted” is most capable of formulating a telling question to the candidates.  I remember having similar questions about the rules that limited juries in infamous and well-known cases to people who hadn’t even heard of the cases and had no opinion about them.  Wouldn’t the result be that you might  limit the pool of questioners – or jurists – to the less informed parts of the population, or to the more quirky and less representative. OK, suppose that 13 percent of the questioners are African-Americans, which would roughly fit the population.  Where are the debate chieftains going to come up with genuinely uncommitted African American voters?

The debate format reflects, above all, the tyranny of the opinion polls, which have become not merely an entertaining mirror on the electorate during elections, but part of the elections themselves. They don’t just predict results, but determine them – by giving candidates an edge in fundraising (who wants to give money to a candidate behind in the polls?) and by shaping the kind of questions that candidates are asked by the media.  Tonight the effect of the polls will not only be to make the debate less entertaining, but less likely to contribute to an informed choice in November.

--John B. Judis