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By Anonymous Mike, pseudonymously.

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Thursday, October 16, 2008
Debate Nights

Let's face it, modern presidential debates are not designed to re-enact the Lincoln-Douglas debates of 1858. Don't think so? Go back to the 1960 debate when "who won the debate" depended on the medium; if you listened on the radio it was Nixon, if you watched on TV it was Kennedy.

These are essentially political beauty shows where we get a chance to see both candidates on the same stage. Nice side-by-side comparison. Who the talking heads doing instant analysis at the end of the debate say who "wins" depends not on a scoring system or issues. Nope, they talk about who looked better or who connected better or who didn't meet expectations. Whose expectations? Well the expectations of those who talk on TV about expectations.

Move on to the debates themselves. A vital rule of management is you get what you measure because those who you are measuring will tend to tweak their performance to affect those measures, to the detriment of any other meaningful result. If you are going to measure who was better on the issues, then that's what you'll get... if you measure based on who looks better and sounds smoother on stage, then that's where the candidates will focus their performance.

That means it matters less what you say then how you say it. If you look and sound smooth but say something just factually wrong like "Israel kicked Hezbollah out of Lebanon" you tend to get rewarded in the instant analysis for the former. The fact checkers who nail for you the latter only come out later after you have already started to cement your performance. Look at Biden after his VP debate a few weeks ago, by one count he had 22 gross errors of fact but alot of analysts had him even in the debate or just a little bit worse than Palin because he looked like he knew what he was saying even if what he was saying was actually crap.

Actually I thought the best part of that debate was when Governor Palin basically refused to answer the questions and just gave statements ont he issues she wanted. She knew the game.

As far as last night went, Obama simply had to look smooth and composed, show that he knew what he was saying... in other words look presidential. You know what? He did, just like he did in the first 2 debates. That's not a cut against him and his performance, he just knew what he needed to do in order to "win."

So let's dispense with the debates as meaningful political dialogue and just acknowledge as what it is... a political beauty contest where the only people who truly win are the talking heads who have to explain to us what we just saw.

Actually I think the best "debate" in my book was when Pastor Rick Warren ran a forum where each candidate took the stage separately. So there's some food for thought.