What’s a Presidential Debate Worth, Anyway?

You’re probably aware that the first debate of the 2012 Presidential election takes place tonight. We know, we know–you can’t wait to hear more about this incredibly exciting race, right?

Well, we’re going to ask the question anyway: What’s the real PR value of a debate? We can’t imagine that too many voters would honestly describe themselves as “undecided” at this point, but an estimated 50 million people will watch the events live—and an audience that big has to be worth something, right?

Maybe not. New Jersey Governor Chris Christie recently predicted that the debates would be a “game changer” for challenger Mitt Romney, but the general consensus holds that the overall influence of these events (which are heavily scripted, despite what they all tell us) is negligible.

Candidates love to play along. In fact, the most irritating element of the debate build-up is the lowered expectations game in which each candidate tries to convince the news media and the public that his or her (okay, his) opponent is a master debater who may well triumph—although it won’t matter in the end.

This is why President Obama recently rated his own debate skills as “okay” while veep nominee Paul Ryan called him “a very gifted speaker” and an “experienced debater”. Obama’s spokesman David Plouffe followed by saying that Mitt Romney has “…prepared more than any candidate in history. And he has shown himself to be a very, very good debater through the years.”

Geez, we get it—you can all be very annoying!

Here’s the key quote: “Debates tend to draw the politically inclined who already favor one party or the other.” History also tells us that, while potential post-debate gains are very small, they tend to favor the challenger. This makes sense, because the challenger is by definition a less familiar brand–and the debates help the public get to know him or her better. Unless one of the participants makes some kind of ridiculous, Rick Perry-level gaffe, the debates won’t make a big difference on election day.

OK, so we can all agree on two things:

  1. The debates, like the party conventions that precede them, are political theater events. They are more likely to inspire committed supporters than to change anyone’s mind.
  2. Mitt Romney, like all those who trail incumbents in the last month of the race, has more to gain (and more to lose) from this particular debate series.

The third and perhaps most important point: Every paid commenter will have something to say about each debate the following day—and every news channel will devote hours of programming to “debating” the debates.

We look forward to not watching all that insightful coverage! How long ‘til election day again?

@PatrickCoffee patrick.coffee@adweek.com Patrick Coffee is a senior editor for Adweek.