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Vice presidential debates rarely affect outcome of race, expert says

Saturday, Oct. 13, 2012, 12:01 a.m.

Although politicians have been debating since the 1800s, it was only 36 years ago — in 1976 — when the first vice presidential debate was held.

At that time, Republican Bob Dole and Democrat Walter Mondale faced off.

Although the vice president is many times viewed as a background position, there have been several times in America's history – from the assassination of Abraham Lincoln to the resignation of Richard Nixon — in which the second in command was thrust into the Oval Office to take over as the leader of the country.

Although the candidates for president have been meeting for three separate debates since the 1970s, the vice presidential candidates have only traditionally met once.

“The vice presidential debate covers both domestic and foreign topics. That's one way that it differs,” said West Virginia University political scientist and debate coach Neil Berch.

Although the vice presidential debates may be heavily viewed, Berch said, they rarely make a difference to the outcome of the race itself. “They generally have very little to do with the results.”

Berch said the vice presidential debate of 2008 was one of the most watched. Viewers tuned in to see Republican candidate Sarah Palin.

“Four years ago, there was a lot more interest because of Sarah Palin,” Berch said. “But overall, people watch for a variety of reasons.”

Debates in general cover an array of topics from the economy to unemployment. Although they are geared to reaching those who are undecided or independents, Berch believes the majority of viewers are decided.

“I think that most people who watch the debates are already decided, and they have a rooting interest,” Berch said. “They watch, and they root on their candidates.”

Voters are given information for months that is garnered from different sources, he said, and the live televised debates are part of the way for voters to see and hear the candidates in a different form.

Impressive amount of voters do actually tune in to at least one of the four debates, he said. “Ask them if they watch, and about 60 percent will tell you that they do.”

Voters must keep in mind that just because a candidate comes out on top of a debate, it does not guarantee a win at the polls, Berch cautioned.

“One of my favorite moments and best line from a vice presidential debate was back in 1988 when Dan Quayle compared himself to John F. Kennedy, and Lloyd Bentsen, who was the running mate with Michael Dukakis, commented, ‘Senator, you are no Jack Kennedy.' Bentsen may have won that debate, but Quayle went to the White House.”

Marilyn Forbes is a freelance writer.



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