I didn’t watch the debate on Monday. Instead I watched the final Mystery Science Theater 3000 episode from their Comedy Central run: Laserblast. It’s a Charles Band film and cheerfully entertaining in its own right, and then MST3K ended the series (they thought) with an elaborately staged spoof of Kubrick’s 2001. Actually, the episode is online. Just take ninety minutes and watch the whole thing.
Might as well; the rest of this post is about politics.
Anyway, I was saying I didn’t watch the debate. I watched the reaction to the debate on Twitter. And then on the news since then. I haven’t actually watched a presidential debate since the Kerry / Bush debates twelve years ago. I just can’t do it anymore, just like I can’t watch live returns. Last election I kept tabs on returns with an iPad while watching Blazing Saddles. That’s an even better movie than Laserblast. You’ll have to find that one on your own, but I hear it’s still pretty popular.
2004 was a rough year politically speaking and it shaped a lot of how I think about politics now. I stood in line three hours to vote. Everyone was voting for Kerry. I thought this meant we were going to win. What it meant was I lived in Northern Virginia.
We went into election day with Kerry losing likely voters but barely edging Bush out on registered voters and everyone I was reading insisting that the polls were wrong, Democrats were going to turn out in greater numbers than ever before. I fully expected that we would crush those likely voter models as well.
I was also circulating stuff like the image below showing how Bush had secretly cheated in his debates with Kerry.
I was absolutely convinced someone had to be feeding Bush answers, that he couldn’t possibly have successfully debated Kerry on his own. At the time I wondered why the Kerry campaign didn’t push this issue a lot harder.
I have a more perspective now and know why. It was fucking insane.
When Obama beat Romney in 2012, a lot of what Romney supporters went through looked really familiar. The Romney team was doing a lot of “unskewing” themselves, explaining away Obama’s lead and certain that a heretofore unmeasured contingent of Romney Voters would appear to drive the great Satan Obama out of the White House. 2004 all over again, but this time it was my side.
But that was Romney’s supporters. I don’t recall him making the rounds of the talking-heads shows saying Obama cheated. Sure, he told people not to believe the polls, but that’s a reasonable thing to say. Politicians say it even if they’re winning, because polls can have a kind of weird feedback effect where the expectation of a good or bad showing causes a lot of people to not bother.
And when Obama lost that first debate with Romney, he didn’t shout about unfair questions or spread conspiracy theories; he buckled down, prepared better, came back stronger. You leave that other crap for the bloggers.
Trump, well. Trump doesn’t believe in outsourcing any of that shit.
Donald Trump has gone on the offensive after his underwhelming debate performance by criticizing debate moderator Lester Holt as biased and accusing Google of a conspiracy to rig search results in favor of Hillary Clinton.
Trump sounds fucking insane. In Trump’s defense, he is in no way qualified qualified to be President. I understand for some that’s the appeal, but it’s argument 1.A for why no one should vote for him as far as I am concerned.
So the conventional wisdom is that debates don’t actually make that much difference in the grand scheme of things. They move the needle towards one candidate or the other for a short time and then the race returns back to its equilibrium. But this time I wonder. I think that theory is based on expected behavior of experienced politicians.
When an experienced politician loses a debate — and to be on the podium in a Presidential debate you should probably be one — he or she tries to correct for the next one. Yelling about moderators and circulating over-sharpened photographs with circles and arrows and a paragraph on the back of each one you leave to the more weirdo of your supporters. You don’t go on TV spinning more elaborate conspiracy theories. Or circulating unscientific, easily manipulated polls. Or doubling-down on what many people think were your most awful moments in a debate like insisting Alicia Machado was an irresponsible lard-ass and you did her a favor. (Really? Really?)
I suspect a base assumption of the “debates don’t matter” theory is that politicians know how to counteract a poor showing or two. I bet it falls apart when you have a candidate who not only keeps digging but hires a brace of backhoes.
At least, I hope. What it says about us otherwise would be difficult to face.