2012 is likely to be remembered in political terms as the “year that debates mattered.”
Not every debate. The third congressional district race ended the day Congressman Marlin Stutzman announced for re-election. The Indiana gubernatorial race ended after plausible Democrat candidate John Gregg based his campaign on having two first names, relatively pointless commercials about a town not known statewide, and using a barber shop quartet moustache on his bumper stickers/yard signs/television taglines. (To young people who don’t remember barbershop quartets, it just looks “old-fashioned.”)
Mike Pence started early in defining himself as “Mr. Indiana,” has a specific roadmap for Indiana and kept up a barrage of positive ads while Gregg was busily digging himself into a hole. It is not clear why, after the first debate, the gubernatorial race wasn’t just declared a technical knockout.
The Indiana Republican senatorial primary, the only one in the nation in which an incumbent senator was defeated, was decisive in the movement to Richard Mourdock from Sen. Richard Lugar post-debate. Polls before had the race relatively even, but after the debate showed huge momentum that resulted in the landslide for Mourdock.
It wasn’t that Lugar did badly, or that Mourdock did such a great job. But Mourdock held his own, seemed like a qualified and non-demonic person (unlike the guy portrayed in the Lugar advertising), and Lugar looked very old. Republican voters were looking for change but were waiting to see if the change agent was plausible. Mourdock was, and the contest was over.
It is unclear whether the Donnelly-Mourdock debates will be important or not. At this point, Mourdock has won statewide election twice, defeated an incumbent senator and withstood millions of dollars of negative ads, yet is no worse than tied. He is a Republican in a Republican state, in a Republican year, and running for a Senate seat that could determine whether liberals control the government. Unless Mourdock collapses, he is likely to win the election.
In the presidential race, the debates played a critical role in the Republican primaries and the fall election. Newt Gingrich only became plausible as a presidential contender because of his debate performances. Herman Cain bloomed briefly because of the debates. Ron Paul, while he excited those watching with his anti-government remarks, basically self-destructed over time with his comments on Iraq, Israel, drug legalization and other misguided views.
Rick Santorum steadily built a base of support unlikely to have occurred without the many, many debates but never could compete financially. And the winner, Mitt Romney, fought off each challenge and clearly nailed the nomination with his taking out Gingrich in Florida.
The first fall presidential debate brought Romney back from a potential fate of John McCain to the cusp of victory. Joe Biden interrupted and laughed his way through his debate with Paul Ryan, but gained no ground. Now, the last two presidential debates may determine in what direction our nation will head. That has not happened in a long time.