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Three Questions: Seth Masket on DU’s 2012 presidential debate

Seth Masket teaches political science at DU. Photo: Wayne Armstrong

Seth Masket, an associate professor in DU’s Department of Political Science, teaches classes on local, regional and national American political issues, including election campaigns and parties. Masket has been with the University of Denver since 2004. He is the author of No Middle Ground: How Informal Party Organizations Control Nominations and Polarize Legislatures (Ann Arbor: The University of Michigan Press, 2009).

DU was chosen to host the first presidential debate leading up to the 2012 election. How will hosting this event impact the University of Denver community, from a political perspective?
For one thing, the University of Denver will be in the national spotlight. This is the first debate, which will probably have the largest viewing audience of all the debates in 2012. We will certainly receive a great deal of publicity.

For another, the debate is likely to dominate conversation across the campus in the days immediately prior to and after the debate. My students often find themselves more engaged in political conversation as presidential elections approach, and this will likely compound that effect.

Colorado is a “purple” state. The Democratic National Convention was held in Denver in 2008, President Obama has held several speaking engagements in Colorado recently, and a presidential debate will be held here next October. Do you think parties are holding political events in Colorado as a strategy to gain support from Colorado voters (and to secure our state’s Electoral College votes)?
Both parties are paying increasing attention to Colorado, as our nine Electoral College votes are increasingly up for grabs by either party, and we are widely seen as the gateway to the Mountain West — one of the few legitimately competitive political regions in the country. To be sure, we will see many visits from presidential and vice presidential candidates of both parties, and our TV airwaves will be filled with political advertisements as the election approaches.

The Commission on Presidential Debates, however, is a nonpartisan organization and is less concerned about picking competitive states for debate venues. The vice presidential debate will be held in Kentucky, and the second presidential debate will be in New York. Neither of those states is generally considered competitive in presidential elections.

What role do presidential debates play in the grand scheme of an election?
Debates rarely change the outcome of an election, although they can certainly have some effects on voters’ perceptions of the candidates, particularly if one candidate clearly outperforms another. The debates between George W. Bush and John Kerry in 2004, for example, gave Kerry a boost and helped to tighten up that race, even though Bush, who was leading in the polls before the debates, still managed to win the election.

There’s some polling evidence suggesting that debates made the difference in the very close elections of 1960 and 2000. In both cases, the candidate trailing in the polls prior to the debates (Kennedy and Bush, respectively) moved to a small lead in the polls after the debates, and subsequently won the White House.

Even when they don’t end up changing the result of the election, debates play an important role in our campaigns. They represent one of the few times when we can observe candidates interacting with each other and thinking on their feet, without campaign staffers, media consultants or journalists acting as intermediaries. The debates help inform voters and draw people into the contest.

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