Imagine a prizefight. Imagine that it is -- unusually -- a five-rounder.
A minute into Round One, the fighter in the red trunks lays a crushing right cross into the face of the fighter with the blue trunks, knocking him to the canvas. He takes a mandatory eight count, then gets up and fights with some hesitation and not much aggressiveness through the next two minutes while he regains his strength (and, perhaps, composure.)
The judges will later turn out to all agree that blue-trunked fighter has an edge, not decisive, but clearly there, in Round Two.
Round Three belongs to the blue-trunked fighter. A clear advantage in punches, staggering, but not knocking down, the red-trunked fighter.
Near the end of Round Four, the blue-trunked fighter knocks down his opponent with a deft combination, culminating with a left hook that can be heard over the crowd noise even in the upper rafters. Red-trunks comes up after his own eight-count.
The fighters have relatively little contact in the final round. The red-trunked fighter is stepping around the edges of the rink, mugging for the crowd, as if he thinks that he must be ahead on points. The blue-trunked fighter looks at him somewhat quizzically, because he knows that he has to be ahead on points, and wonders whether the red-trunked fighter has become somewhat addled or is just pretending to be celebrating an early victory so that he can somehow convince the judges that he must be ahead. It doesn't really matter; if his opponent is going to run, the blue-trunked fighter has no obligation to chase him. The red-trunked fighter, still dancing around, appears to want to climb outside of the ropes and motions the blue-trunked fighter to join him, in what would later be described by his trainer as an attempt to "expand the boxing ring."I describe, as I'm sure you all realize, the February 10, 1962 victory of Cassius Clay (later Muhammed Ali), in his tenth professional fight over Sonny Banks. Oh, all right -- I was just joking about that. (There were similarities, though. Clay was knocked down in the first round but regained his footing and knocked Banks out in four. Yes, of course I had to look that up!)
With a minute left in the fight, the ref has to call for an area near the blue corner to be toweled off because of a spill on the canvass -- the blue-trunked boxer directs his corner men to help with that task while the red-trunked boxer shouts that he knows the right way to do it that they're doing it too slowly, because -- as he shakes the sweat off of his body -- some moisture remains on the canvas. Soon the final bell sounds, the referee tallies up the scores of the other judges, and announces to the cheers of most of the crowd that the blue-trunked fighter is the winner. The red-trunked fighter and his cornermen feign (or worse, honestly express) disdain for the decision; with the fighter's wife looking like she too had taken a serious of jabs to the breadbasket -- after an unwisely large meal.
Actually, as I'm sure you all realize, it's a metaphor -- one that doesn't become completely unglued, I'd like to think, until after the jump. Let's return to it for just a moment.
After the fight, [two of the most esteemed boxing commentators in the business offer similar takes on the fight.Here's the thing (and I write as a former professor of Political Science who focused on public opinion): while political scientists do sometimes argue that debates are not important, they are full of cheese. The truth is that debates are sometimes important and sometimes unimportant and most often somewhere in between. That's because debates are events -- and the same moderate truism expressed above can apply to most events other than debates as well.
Gregbert Sugardworkin writes that the fight proves that the early rounds don't matter, because after all blue-trunks got knocked down but then got up to finish the fight.
The great Dave Howard Cosweigsell offers "a word of praise for ologists of the sweet science, who said that the first rounds don't swing elections, got mocked by jerks like me, but were 100% right."
(A third commenter, Drunken Poblano, announces to the world that he himself was the Greatest of All Time, producing 40 separate charts and 17 new statistics to prove it, but that's not actually part of this story.)
We usually don't know what events will end up deciding a Presidential election at the time they happen. We do know this: because the effect of the debates will generally be reflected in things like "likeability" and "favorability" that may be offered as competing explanations, treating such variables as "exogenous" (that is, first and independent causes of an outcome) leads to something called "multicollinearlity" in regression analysis that will generate a substantial underestimate of individual events. (Imagine arguing that attraction and compatability were not sound predictors of likelihood of a couple getting married because the reression equation clearly showed that the greatest predictor was whether one member of the couple had bought the other an engagement ring. Yes, that's true -- but it misses the point of prediction!)
To decide what influence a discrete cause had upon an ultimate outcome, you have to do some fancy messing about with statistics that represent various causal models -- and, frankly, my sense when doing this sort of thing 25 years ago is that this is when the resilience of the mathematical model in question usually comes plummeting down around one's head and shoulders.
Saying that "debates don't matter" is as specious as saying that "early rounds don't matter" because Sonny Banks knocked down Cassius Clay early in their fight and he still went on to win. Yeah -- Clay went on to win because he outboxed Banks in the subsequent rounds, ending the fight with a fourth-round knockout. The first-round knockout didn't matter in that fight because later events supplanted it. That is not how it had to have gone. Sonny Banks could have knocked me down in the first round of that fight and, even if I had somehow gotten up, he still would have been favored to win the rest -- especially given that I'd no longer be quite at my best.
As this is still a metaphor, let me spell it out for you:
It is wrong to conclude that "debates don't matter" from the concluding three weeks of the 2012 Presidential campaign. Yes, Romney's bump from the first debate had largely receded -- but if Biden had booted the VP debate and Obama had performed as sluggishly in the last two, I see no reason to believe that, structural advantages aside, Obama would have been favored to beat Romney five days ago. Just as the damage from blows to the jaw in Rounds Two and Three can compound and intensify the damage in an initial right cross in Round One, so can the impression set in a first debate be buttressed and amplified in the later ones. Obama wasn't knocked out due to the first debate -- but the odds of his losing had gone way up (as Nate Silver himself had calculated.)
So yes -- debates matter. Even one bad first debate, if not later righted, could prove to be decisive. Debates are not the be-all and end-all of electoral politics -- both money and ground game, for example, probably matter more -- but to conclude from this campaign season that they don't matter is to woefully misread the evidence.
The first debate didn't end up mattering here -- but that's largely because Biden, and then Obama twice, beat their opponents and stopped it from mattering. Had our ticket not done so well, we might today still be discussing how Obama lost the election back on October 3 -- not because it had to turn out that way, but because it happened to turn out that way.
So while Greg Dworkin writes that:
Yes, Virginia, debates don't matter that much. We noted that beforehand, so it's not hindsight bias. No one's saying they didn't matter "at all", it's that they didn't matter "that much", and certainly not in the game changing way the pundits claimed.I think that he's wrong. The first debate -- arguably all three Presidential debates, and maybe Biden's as well -- mattered a great deal. It's just that, in this election, the effect of the latter three countered the effects of the first one -- so in the aggregate the debates ending up not having mattered. That was our good fortune -- because it easily could have turned out otherwise.