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Outcome Hinges on Interpretation : Debate Strategy: Trying to ‘Shape’ Media’s Views

Times Staff Writer

They are now, most experts think, one of the two or three most important events in deciding the presidency.

But history shows that who wins presidential debates often has little connection with who mastered the issues, debated well or seemed most able to govern.

Instant polls with sometimes spurious findings, for instance, can profoundly affect how the public ultimately judges the debate--as happened in 1980, to the benefit of Ronald Reagan.

Television, with its need for action and 30-second sound bites, also can transform an insubstantial one-liner into a decisive moment, as happened in 1984, again to Reagan’s advantage.

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And the media’s need to pinpoint decisive moments, whether they exist or not, can turn something the public did not care about at first into a pivotal campaign event, as happened in 1976, possibly costing Gerald R. Ford the election.

As a result, campaign officials now believe that who wins debates can be a matter of which campaign “shapes” the media’s views of the contest beforehand--something even Democrats privately feel the Republicans have done better this year in advance of the first debate, scheduled for Sunday at 5 p.m. PDT in Winston-Salem, N.C.

“Presidential debates are high theater,” said Republican media consultant Robert Goodman. “They are not debates at all, they are performances.”

And as in theater, a bad review by the critics can make or break the actors’ careers.

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The fact is, “a lot of people don’t watch, and even a lot who do watch aren’t very sure what happened,” said conservative author Kevin Phillips, publisher of the American Political Report.

Most people do not know much about issues, and judging who won a debate is inherently subjective, anyway.

That is one reason, said Larry J. Sabato, a political scientist at the University of Virginia, that campaigns work on candidates’ appearance and body language as much as issues. That, after all, is where many voters focus.

Surprise Handshake

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In 1980, for instance, Reagan helped demonstrate he was a non-threatening figure by crossing the stage and shaking a surprised Jimmy Carter’s hand, Sabato said. In 1984, similarly, Walter F. Mondale practiced and executed “the pivot,” a carefully orchestrated turn designed by Mondale’s handlers for him to face Reagan and demonstrate equal stature while looking respectful toward a popular President.

But the inability of many voters to independently judge winners in a debate also explains why these events are so dependent on media interpretation.

“The media can’t invent something, but they can take a perception and crystallize it,” Phillips said.

Indeed, polls show that while public opinion is often muddled immediately after a debate, within a few days a clear consensus about the winner and loser usually has formed.

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It is not so much the so-called instant analysts on TV who decide what this consensus will be--of late, they have proven scrupulously cautious in their first reactions.

Instead, the lasting verdict on a debate is built over several days in a fluid and subtle process. It begins even before the event with campaigns trying to shape how reporters think, gains speed when television repeatedly airs a few select sound bites, is reinforced by polls and by newspaper reports, then hardens over time.

The problem is that the process is vulnerable to misinterpretation.

For one thing, the earliest polls that measure and intensify public reaction to debates can distort the process. The samples tend to be small, and people interviewed in the first hours tend to be uncertain of what they think.

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Or take the case of the ABC poll in 1980 that seemed to sway toward Reagan a debate that analysts initially ruled close.

“It was a phony poll,” Sabato said. For one thing, it relied on viewers calling in and thus was affected by a phone-in effort on Reagan’s behalf. Its results also were skewed toward the West since it was conducted late at night.

Nonetheless, the poll, which showed Reagan an overwhelming winner, “was ballyhooed by the networks and became an early weight” in the eventual consensus, Sabato said.

Others worry that the press distorts how people see debates.

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Kathleen H. Jamieson, a professor at the University of Texas and co-author of “Presidential Debates,” argues that journalists, particularly on television, tend to seek the drama of a winner and loser rather than the dull muddle of a draw--whether justified or not. She cites the initial close results of 1976 and 1980 as examples.

In its search, Jamieson says, the press also looks for decisive moments in a debate, like a home run winning a baseball game--and in the process will create a decisiveness that did not exist at the time.

A classic case is Ford’s gaffe in his 1976 debate with Jimmy Carter, in which Ford said there was “no Soviet domination of Eastern Europe.”

“At first it was not that big a deal,” said Democratic media consultant Carter Eskew. Only after several days of the press focusing on it did the polls show that Ford had decisively lost the debate.

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“Ford was gaining on Carter,” Sabato said. “That interrupted his momentum and very well could have deprived him of victory.”

Television, in particular, Jamieson argued, leads to “spurious criteria” in deciding winners and losers in debates.

“The grammar of broadcasting requires a 30-second news clip that shows conflict, often humor,” she said. Since a strong substantive answer may not boil down to that, often what is perceived on television and repeated over and over as part of the consensus is “a moment of theater designed to deflect a key issue but which has little criteria for being President.”

The most famous incident was in the second 1984 debate, when Reagan--after a fumbling performance in the first go-round--dispatched growing concerns that he had become too old to govern by joking that he wouldn’t make an issue of Mondale’s age and inexperience.

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“It is perfectly conceivable that someone in an advanced stage of senility could have also told that carefully scripted joke,” Jamieson said, “so to let that become the central moment of the debate makes no sense.”

Yet many who have studied debates also believe that the moments the media fastens on would not become accepted as decisive if they did not somehow strike a responsive chord with the public.

For example, even Jamieson concedes that Ford’s gaffe in 1976 might not have hurt him with voters if they hadn’t connected it with a larger concern about the candidate--that he was a bumbler possibly not smart enough to be President.

And Reagan’s joke about age worked because people already wanted their minds put at ease about the President, argues William Schneider, political consultant to The Times.

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“The sentiment already has to be there,” Schneider said. “You can’t manufacture these things out of whole cloth.”

That does not stop campaigns, however, from working mightily to try to precondition how the press will view a debate, in the hopes of shaping which sound bites get picked up and which are ignored. In truth, Jamieson found in doing her book, each candidate makes dozens of gaffes in every debate.

The art of using campaign operatives to try to shape press thinking gained particular force after Ford’s 1976 gaffe, Jamieson said.

But it has grown increasingly sophisticated since, to the point now that merely talking to reporters after a debate to shape their analysis will not work. What has gone on this year, particularly among Republicans, is that they have shaped the context in which reporters view the debate beforehand. George Bush, they say, is ahead in the polls and has sufficiently lowered expectations about his debating talents that he does not need to accomplish much in the debate. A tie is a victory.

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If reporters are persuaded this is plausible, it may become self-fulfilling prophecy, consultants such as Democrat Eskew acknowledge.

Jamieson offers a familiar solution: The press can protect itself from such manipulation if it focuses less on campaign tactics and more on substantive issues.

“I’m worried,” she says, that “the press is creating expectations for the candidate that can only be met by engaging in theater.” The temptation will be for a candidate to heed his internal campaign polls and focus on his rival’s weakness with voters or appeal to a specific voter group.

How previous candidates prepared to debate. Calendar, Page 1.

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