IOP Panelists Stress Importance of Presidential Debates

Panelists at the Institute of Politics said that debates are playing a stronger role in the presidential elections, because of an increase in political advertising.

Moderated by Institute of Politics Director C. M. Trey Grayson ’94, the event attracted many freshman and their parents, many of whom were visiting during Freshman Parents Weekend. During the discussion, Grayson noted the increased importance of the presidential debates due to the oversaturation of ads on television.

“Ironically, the debates are what have come to shape the race,” said panelist Nina J. Easton, an IOP Fellow and columnist for Fortune Magazine.

Panelist Mark D. McKinnon, an IOP fellow and served as President George W. Bush’s communications strategist, expanded, saying that the voters have become “incredibly cynical and skeptical.” “There is a huge emphasis on authenticity—a debate is not packaged and is not controlled.”

When prompted by an audience member about Vice President Joseph Biden’s frequent smiling and laughing during the vice presidential debate, Easton said she was “surprised that it wasn’t more of a deal-breaker than it was.”

Panelists also weighted the effects of advertising and whether large fundraising efforts on both sides were significantly changing the race.

“There is a heavy air war going on right now primarily by Romney and the super PACs,” McKinnon said.

But Jonathan H. Alter ’79, a columnist for Bloomberg View, argued that “the super PAC money is no good on the ground,” where Obama has developed a strong base of supporters willing to take to the phones and persuade others to support their cause.

Looking more broadly at the election, Alter also likened the current race to that of Jimmy Carter and Gerald Ford. Although the president was unable to defeat Carter in the general election, “Ford began to close the gap” in September, he said. “Romney has some momentum now and it is a question of whether president Obama can break that momentum,” Alter said.

The members of the panel were also asked for their predictions on who would be the victor in November.

“I think both candidates will be in the 200 plus electoral votes,” sad Carlos E. Díaz Rosillo, a Lecturer on Government and Allston Burr Resident Dean of Dunster House. “But I’ll give [the edge] to Romney.”

The talk was “very informative and stimulating,” said Alan Dean, a parent of a Harvard College student.

“There’s a fairly high level of interest,” Grayson said in an interview with the Crimson. “One of the things that struck me is that there seems to be a lot of enthusiasm for [Democratic Mass. Senate Candidate and Harvard Law School professor] Elizabeth Warren, maybe more so than even Obama.”

—Staff writer David W. Kaufman can be reached at davidkaufman@college.harvard.edu.

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