The first “debate” is over

Yesterday, the three presidential candidates spent an hour on TV talking about why they should be president and why the others should not. This forum was organized by the Central Election Commission, and it wasn’t a true debate. No one asked questions, and they did not have any quick-fire back and forth or interruptions. Instead, they each spoke for thirty minutes each, with three rounds of ten-minute speeches. The CEC holds these forums for all elections, and they are supposed to be for candidates to present their platforms. People rarely pay attention to them since they are always pretty boring. However, since this one was the first time all three presidential candidates have been on the same stage, it got a bit more notice.

I had intended to produce a full writeup of the forum, but, honestly, I can’t bring myself to do it. The candidates all made their speeches and hit their high notes. They attacked each other, and defended themselves. I thought that maybe Tsai did a bit better than Han, but, generally, I think that almost all partisans will feel that it was either even or their candidate came out on top.

The most important result of this forum is that it is over, and it didn’t produce any big headlines. As any presidential race winds to its conclusion, the media starts to look at the debates as the last major scheduled event that has the potential to change voters’ minds. When one candidate is clearly trailing, as Han currently is, the debates are seen as their last best chance to reset the race.

In fact, presidential debates rarely have much effect. In American presidential debate history, there are a few famous moments that we remember. In fact, those moments rarely matter as much as we think. One reason debates aren’t so important is that we quickly lose interest. The first debate gets a lot of hype, but then the second and third debates get far lower levels of attention. By the time a VP debate is held, only political junkies are still watching. The first debate is usually the only one that really matters. However, if one candidate has a terrible first debate, they (almost always) get a second chance. In 1984 and 2012, Presidents Reagan and Obama had terrible first debates. Luckily for them, they did much better in the second debates, and voters mostly drifted back to their original positions. So even if the first debate produces a potential game-changer, it rarely ends up as an actual game-changer. The same candidate has to trounce their opponent again and again, meeting a higher and higher threshold of expectations each time.

This year, we are scheduled to have three of these CEC policy forums and then (I think) one more traditional debate. Arranging the schedule in this way is very advantageous to Tsai. Han needs a knockout, and this schedule minimizes the possibility that he will get one. Since the policy forums don’t provide much opportunity for a candidate to back their opponent into a corner, a dramatic win is unlikely. Now that we have finished the first forum, fewer and fewer people will pay attention to the next two forums. The first one was pretty boring, so why would you want to sit through two more of those? By the time the traditional debate rolls around, people will have had three opportunities to watch the candidates on stage. I somehow don’t expect there to be a whole lot of people watching. And even if Tsai does commit a gaffe, it will just be one mistake over several hours of TV presentations.

One of the traditional perils of debates for incumbents is that they are overconfident. Presidents think they know the relevant policy details, and they don’t need to spend a day or two cramming for the exam. President Obama is the classic example of this, but it also happened to President Carter and probably a few others. Tsai was likewise overconfident and ill-prepared for the ECFA debate she had with President Ma in 2010. However, the current schedule lets her ease into the debates. Han had one or two opportunities to press her, and some of her defense statements seemed a bit choppy. It should be a good reminder to her that she needs to take debate prep seriously.

So while there were a few interesting points made in this debate, those were relatively minor tactical details. The most important result is that today the media is already talking about other topics.

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