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November 7, 2006
Admittedly, I do not possess what the experts would consider a finely tuned political mind. I don't know all the ins and outs of the United States government and surrounding international bodies. I could not even deliver upon demand the American presidents, listed in chronological order. However, what I do know is that now is a time of which will be remembered as a key point in American history. For future generations around the globe, the decision of the 2004 U.S. presidential election will be a factor that molds individuals' everyday lifestyles. Not in my lifetime has there been an electoral decision so hotly discussed on blogs, in chat rooms, around water coolers, and most importantly, in every corner of the public realm.

"If there's ever been a more important debate, it certainly doesn't come to mind," said ABC network's Peter Jennings on the night of the third and final debate held in Tempe, Arizona. Jennings' words could be considered pre-bout ring hype, but something else had been at play during each of the three presidential and one vice-presidential debates to make the events extraordinarily intriguing.


Stakes is High

The 2004 Presidential and Vice-Presidential Debates were the general public's only view of contrast between the two major party candidates before the election, which takes place on November 2nd. For many-especially those who gather their news primarily through television-these events were also the only time that they could gain a perceived sense of character exposure from each of the candidates. The power of a little TV face time is remarkable in its massive extension...especially when you eradicate someone's Constitutional right to Must See TV. For those that doubt the effects of these four public debates, the facts do quite a bit of debating themselves.

Prior to the first debate held in Coral Gables, Florida, Senator John Kerry was oft perceived as merely the anti-Bush. Or better yet-the Democratic challenger at large. At this time before the open arguments began, a Gallop poll conducted within a group of equally represented-partisan respondents showed that Kerry trailed President Bush in projected voting by a significant margin of nearly 10 percent. Then the mics were turned on and the cameras captured something of a change in perceptions.

Virginia Vander Velde, a 45-year old nursing student who lives in a suburb of Chicago, Illinois, watched most of all four debates and described them as, "excellent in theory but very inappropriate in their manner." Vander Velde also felt that the competitiveness of the debates brought on a manner of personal attacks that our country needs to grow beyond. The events showed the public that both men have a passion for the position but it also showed that both aren't the type of people who many thought they were; even inaccuracies in speech have since been discovered.

The first debate was arguably Kerry's greatest assertion of belonging as found in any of the three deliberations against Bush. Many expected the incumbent to use his Texas drawl and genial presentation to win over a bigger margin of preference with the American public. Yet it was the Senator from Massachusetts that found a way to stand reverent in the way of attacks and slights, as his opponent showed disdain in a 90-minute showcasing of childlike facial expressions and fumbled, repetitive speech. Analysts and news correspondents called it an outright victory for the Kerry campaign.

The decision had even greater implications because of the massive viewership that tuned in. According to CNN, the first debate drew 62.5 million viewers, which is more than any other national debate since 1992. The swollen audience numbers carried into the vice-presidential debate, which drew 43.6 million viewers-also a record held since '92.

The effect of the larger audiences led to a drastic change in projected voting polls and now, after the third and final debate, the presidential race has been close to a lock at 49 percent per candidate (as conducted by Gallup).

In another poll CNN also reported that Kerry held an edge in the assessment of debate success, winning the final deliberation, 52 percent to President Bush's 39 percent.


Beyond the Numbers

So what do all these poll numbers mean? With margins of error always looming between the sample and the actual population decisions, it is sometimes hard to tell whether or not these debates play a role in the election outcome. Even more so as the 2000 election proved, numbers don't always tell the whole story. But we do know that a newly established public perception did do something to the dynamic between the two major candidates.

One possible thought for the leveling in potential popular vote is that undecideds were more impressed by Kerry in his debate performance than they were of Bush. The debate plays big in undecided swing states such as Oregon, Iowa and Pennsylvania because the candidates have such drastic differences in major policies (taxes, environment, war, etc.). For these undecided geographical areas, candidates feel they have the best chance of gaining new support.

"If people truly are undecided then I would think [the debates] would play a pretty significant role," said Margo O'Hara, a 21-year old Senior majoring in news editorial journalism at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. "But for people like me who already have their absentee ballots filled out, it's just a way to be aware."

Which brings up a good point: if our nation is truly the most divided that it has been, and if these candidates are truly rallying their supporters to their respective corners then why are the debates as important as they are. Not all the 62.5 million viewers could be undecideds tuning in to figure out who is the best choice to punch come ballot time. Why would so many people tune in to watch debating about that which they have already made a decision upon?

Howard, a 45-year old biology teacher from a high school near Chicago, said he already knew for whom he was voting before the debates began. However, he found that the debates are a useful tool in fully understanding the candidates and our nation.

"Through these debates I got a good idea of what John Kerry was all about," Howard said. "I think that the result of this election is either going to be really close or we'll be really surprised."

Vander Velde agreed: "The debates didn't change my vote but they did change my opinion of the candidates."

Other individuals considered the presidential debates a chance to find unbiased coverage on each candidate.

"Newspapers and [television] news like to display their news in different ways depending on the paper and the news channel," said Amer Z, a 23-year old junior at the University of Illinois-Chicago.

"It's hard to believe everything the news says; it's sort of biased. I would say it's different depending on the owners and producers of the channels-for example, FOX's superiors are Republican.

"In the debates, it is up to the person to decide. It's unedited and not shown in a biased view. I really hope people know that (the perceived unbiased nature of the debates) when they vote and rely on the debates as a key opportunity to decide on who they are going to vote for."

So folks, regardless of if you watched the debates or not, something significant took place on the public forum to possibly usher along a new era in America. Whether this next presidency is to be one of empty promises and fumbled diplomacy or one of stern and objective action, is yet to be decided. One thing that is in our control though is to consume the news that surrounds us, especially in situations such as the debate that promise democratic responsibility on the citizens' part. Many figure this to be either Senator Kerry's or President Bush's time to shine, but fortunately the spotlight is pointed right on the American people themselves. Everyone needs to take the stage and perform to their potential in this one. Let's be responsible and find the truths in this election and vote accordingly. Thanks.


Do Your Duty
Before voting today, do the world a favor and check out some of these sites: NPR, Associated Press , FactCheck.org, Fund Race, E-Democracy, PollingReport.com and a host of other links at Journalist's Toolbox.

--
Josh Zanger
Joshua Ian Zanger, a native of rural Chicago, rocks many a world with his writing, style, and generally sweet aroma.

See other articles by Josh Zanger.

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