The swing voters who decide elections do not usually watch debates in large numbers, but such a debate can still produce a campaign’s defining moments and determine the candidates’ fates, a panel of experts said during a Debate Watch Forum on Sept. 28.
The forum took place during the noon hour in the Kalmanovitz Appellate Courtroom at the School of Law, just hours before Jerry Brown and Meg Whitman met for a debate next door at the Mondavi center for the Performing Arts.
It was the gubernatorial candidates’ first debate — and could play a decisive role in the closely contested race.
Debates like this one are highly scripted and feverishly rehearsed, but often they have decided elections, the forum panelists said, although the consensus as to who won or lost only develops over the course of several days as each candidate’s remarks reach voters through the media.
“Most people who are going to watch the debate have already decided who they’re going to vote for,” said panelist Dan Schnur, chairman of the California Fair Political Practices Commission.
“They are watching because they are truly, madly, atypically interested in politics to the point where they have already made a strong decision as to which candidate they prefer.
“The swing voters who are going to decide this election have got other things to do at 6 o’clock at night, and they are going to be getting their information on the debate through the news cycle.”
Robert Huckfeldt, political science professor and director of both the UC Davis Institute of Governmental Affairs and the UC Center Sacramento, said: “What we’re really dealing with is first of all a media consensus, as the media form a judgment and then inform us about that.
“As a consequence, you see movement in the audience response to the debate for several days after the event is over.”
The School of Law, the Institute of Governmental Affairs and the UC Center Sacramento sponsored the forum in cooperation with the UC Davis News Service. The event drew a capacity crowd of 125 in the courtroom; other people watched a live webcast.
Other faculty members who served on the panel: Vikram Amar, professor of law and associate dean for Academic Affairs in the School of Law; and Larry Berman, professor of political science and founding director of the UC Washington Center.
Rounding out the panel: Schnur and Carla Marinucci, veteran San Francisco Chronicle reporter who specializes in state and national political coverage.
Taking questions from moderator A.G. Block, associate director of the UC Center Sacramento who served as editor of the now defunct California Journal, and from the audience, the panelists offered comments on subjects ranging from the historical importance of debates to potential strategies for Brown and Whitman, and the changing role of the media in the debate process.
“Historically, they have mattered a lot,” Huckfeldt said, noting that from the Lincoln-Douglas debates of 1858 through nationally televised spectacles of the modern era, debates have played an important role in American politics, often simply because they focus the attention of the electorate.
“The biggest advantage, from my standpoint, is that voters pay attention,” he said.
Berman, specifically addressing this year’s election for California governor, said: “In close races, debates can make a difference and have made a difference, and this is a very close race” — in fact, it was a virtual dead heat prior to the debate.
He offered several examples, from President Ford’s gaffe in the 1976 presidential debate (in which he incorrectly stated that “there is no Soviet domination of Eastern Europe”) to candidate Bill Clinton’s masterful performance in 1992.
The Brown-Whitman debate offered the potential to illuminate the stark differences in style between this year’s gubernatorial candidates, Marinucci said.
“In all the years I’ve been covering this, I’ve never seen two candidates who were so yin and yang on every level of the campaign,” she said, contrasting the tightly controlled, big-budget Whitman with the largely unscripted but more accessible Brown.
Amar suggested that there were several issues that the candidates could use in order to define the differences between them in ways that potentially could resonate with voters.
Amar noted two issues on which Whitman could press Brown, painting him as holding positions contrary to the will of the electorate: Proposition 8, the same-sex marriage ban passed by voters in 2008, which Brown, as attorney general, has declined to defend against court challenges; and the voter-approved death penalty, which Brown strongly opposed as governor.
Brown, on the other hand, said Amar, could attempt to cast Whitman as a rich, inexperienced newcomer to politics, by pressuring her on her reported failure to vote during the past 28 years and the record amount of her own money that she has spent on her campaign.
Schnur said that the debate was likely to play a large role in defining public perceptions of the candidates — and defining their chances of success in November.
With voters seemingly equally angry with Washington and Wall Street, the race could come down to whether Whitman can succeed in directing their anger at Brown as a career politician, or whether Brown can depict Whitman as a wealthy, extravagant corporate executive.
“The question not only for Whitman and Brown but for all candidates is, ‘Who are voters most angry at?’ ” Schnur said. “Voters are angry at Washington and career politicians. They’re angry at Wall Street and rich CEOs.
“And I would suggest to you that the debate and the next several weeks of the campaign will be an effort to frame the decision to be made on November 2 essentially as: Who do we hate more, Washington or Wall Street?”
Joe Martin is a senior writer in the School of Law.
More about the debate
The university's debate website, which includes videos of the debate and the Debate Watch Forum