President Obama faces challenger Mitt Romney in the first of three presidential debates this week -- but with early voting already under way in places, how much of a difference will these televised showdowns make? This is, after all, the social media election where reactions on Twitter to the candidates' statements, gestures, expressions, and even attire are subject to mass review within 15 seconds instead of Monday-morning quarterbacking by pundits. Still, a political campaign specialist told CNN, debates do matter for voters:
"People tend to look for little moments that encapsulate the whole campaign," said Bill Benoit, a professor in the School of Communication Studies at Ohio University in Athens. He cited the 1992 debate between Bill Clinton and George H. W. Bush, in which the latter's glance at his watch was interpreted by some observers as revealing impatience and aloofness.
"The idea that, when President Bush looked at his watch, that that was more important than months of campaigns in multi-media and more important than anything that anyone actually said in the debates, that just doesn't sound realistic to me," he told CNN in a telephone interview.
Benoit also rejected some political pundits' accepted wisdom that Richard Nixon's 6 o'clock shadow was responsible for voters giving him worse marks in the 1960 televised debate against John F. Kennedy than did those who heard the debate only on radio.
"The evidence for that is really bad," Benoit said, noting that neither audience was randomly sampled.
But debates do matter, he said. "One reason that they matter is that they are almost the only message that millions and millions of people see. In some states, they don't run any ads. The one thing that the most people see is the debates. They have that message in common, even though they read different newspapers and watch different television."
See a different sort of head-to-head here: Comparison of the Obama-Romney platform on the issues, straight from the mouths of the campaigns.