We’re mere hours away from Wednesday night’s debate. For the past several days, both Mitt Romney and Barack Obama have withdrawn from the campaign trail to busily cram for this long-awaited political showdown. Behind the scenes, top strategists on both sides of the coin have been sharpening their knives, while jabbering pundits hype the potential of “game change.”
What’s at stake under the big top in Denver is obvious. The president is anxious to make his case for another four years. The challenger is trying to undermine that claim. Both will have been briefed extensively, and the “outcome” will likely hinge on a knock-out gibe or a memorable gaffe.
The impact of this discussion may even nudge one candidate’s numbers at the other’s expense.
But let’s face it: as John Sides writes for the Washington Monthly, these debates tend to attract partisan viewership who are already committed to their candidate. Voters may learn new information, but it’s unlikely that either fellow is going to change many minds. For all the memorable moments, most serious scholarship tells us that presidential debates have a “fragile” effect on the ultimate outcome of the election.
But Wednesday night offers another conversation you might find compelling. I’m talking about a discussion between an emerging champion of traditional conservatism and a liberal huckster who’s literally made a joke of American politics.
That right. Senator Rand Paul is appearing on The Daily Show to face-off against the left’s leading harlequin, Jon Stewart. In an odd way, what’s happening on Comedy Central might tell us a lot more about the future of political discourse in America than Wednesday night’s presidential debate.
Consider the numbers. Judging by the Nielsen ratings from the 2008 debates, we can anticipate that that the median age of viewership for the televised face-off between Romney and Obama will be planted firmly in the mid-fifties. Far from the army of “stoned slackers” and “dopey kids” skewered by Bill O’Reilly, the median age of Stewart’s audience has grayed to 41 years young, but remains buoyed by a legion of civil libertarian-minded youngsters who are increasingly disaffected with the major parties’ boilerplate.
There’s also a body of academic research out there that suggests satirical programs like The Daily Show drive down support for inaccessible political institutions and calcified party leadership among a cynical mass of our nation’s youth (see, Baumgartner, 2006).
Allow me to “add context and stir.”
Writing for Forbes back in May, political pollster John Zogby surveyed a libertarian-leaning movement among young Americans. As if to sum up the stats in twenty-five words or less, JZ wrote youth politics had shifted stream from “Obama-or-bust” towards an attitude of…
“Live and let live. Individual responsibility is as important as collective responsibility. Avoid military interventions. Distrust both government and corporations. Protect civil liberties.”
That this political zeitgeist is directly attributed to a certain 77 year-old from Texas’s 14th Congressional District is obvious.
Of course, that torch has been passed. Which is precisely why Rand Paul probably has the opportunity to change more minds on Wednesday night than his primetime competition.