5 ways to watch presidential debates without panicking

by | October 16, 2012 at 3:34 PM


Tonight’s presidential debate is being billed by the media as The Most Important Moment of President Barack Obama’s Political Life … Period. (Well, aside from a little thing called The Entire 2008 Election, in which a black guy named Barack Hussein Obama attempted to beat a war hero and become the first black president of the United States, but I digress…)

In reality, the extent to which Obama’s re-election chances hinge on tonight’s second presidential debate has more to do with the media than with the public, since something like 95 percent of voters have already made up their minds, and close to 1 in 10 people in key swing states like Florida and Ohio have already voted.

That said, the debate matters, since the media says it matters, and because what the headlines tomorrow say about the debate can tend to drive public opinion after the debate, and that has real implications for voter enthusiasm, and therefore, the outcome of the election.

Some commentators have objected to this, including MSNBC’s Lawrence O’Donnell, who has suggested the debates should be completely reconfigured, allowing the candidates to bring in notes and eliminating the moderator entirely.

Others, like statistical modeling guru Nate Silver of the New York TimesFiveThirtyEight blog have suggested making the media take a 24-hour timeout after any debate before weighing in, thus allowing public opinion to form on its own before the press weighs in.

Those are good ideas, but in the meantime, how can the average voter watch the debates without losing their mind? Here are five suggestions:

1. Watch by yourself (or with someone really quiet).

In this age of ego-reinforcing media that tends to tell you exactly what you already believe, and since most people tune out all sources that don’t, having a bunch of like-minded, potentially inebriated people in a bar or in your living room, yelling at the TV along with you will only further bias your reaction to the debate, and possibly give you a headache. Instead, retire to a quiet room in your home (or as Mitt Romney would say, your “apartment”) and consult your own conscience as to how things went. Of course, once you’ve given yourself a few minutes to reflect, turn on MSNBC immediately. (Or Fox, if you’re a conservative. Or CNN if you really don’t care one way or the other.) That way, you’ll still have your sanity, but at least you’ll know what everyone else is talking about around the water cooler tomorrow.

2. Keep Twitter handy (or Facebook, if you prefer).

It’s more fun and less stressful to get the snarky reactions to what’s happening on the TV screen directly from @BillMaher or @SamuelLJackson in real time, instead of having to wait to find out what they thought on Real Time later in the week. Also, not everyone can afford HBO.

3. Don’t believe the snap polls.

For one thing, they’re almost always of relatively low quality compared to a normal poll. For instance, the CNN instant poll taken after the first presidential debate significantly oversampled white southerners, which of course produced a big win for Mitt Romney. And because the sample sizes in the polls are small, and the samples often self-selected rather than scientifically chosen, they tend to have a “lean.” Ignore them entirely, and wait for the first set of real poll numbers to come out about three days after the debate, since those will take into account at least three full days of viewer/voter reactions.

4. Remember that debates are like NFL playoff games — most people watching are rooting for one team.

One thing that all of the polls have in common is that they show very few “undecided” voters. The American electorate is as partisan as it has been, well, ever. That means that something like 90 percent of Democrats and Republicans are voting their party line, and the vast majority of debate viewers are tuning in to see their guy wallop the competition, not to have their minds swayed. So understand that no matter who the majority of people and reporters believe wins the debate, the performance of either candidate is unlikely to change many votes.

5. Don’t blame the moderator.

No moderator can help or hurt a candidate during a debate. They are part facilitator, part theatrical prop. If your candidate loses, it’s their fault, not Martha Raddatz’s, or Candy Crowley’s, or poor, poor Jim Lehrer’s. Still, critiquing the moderator’s performance is a time-honored debate tradition, and will definitely make the experience more fun for you, the viewer. So snark away, at everything from their passiveness or aggressiveness to their interruptions or lack thereof.

But please, be polite. Tweeting ugly things to a moderator during or after the debate is just rude, and makes you a bad person. So if you don’t have anything nice to say, say it on MySpace. That way nobody but your lamest friends will know.

Follow Joy Reid on Twitter at @thereidreport