Debate? What Debate?

It’s fairly predictable. Minutes after the presidential debate, journalists, pundits, and bloggers were aflame with “reasons” why President Obama “won” the debate. After the beating he took in the first debate, it was pretty obvious that Obama was going to come back strong. Regardless of how he really did, it was also apparent that every media outlet was only waiting for the debate to officially end before they published their pre-written proclamation of Obama’s victory. Even if Obama had only done slightly better than he did in the first debate—which was all but a given—it would have been heralded as a win. It is all rather sad and pathetic, but it is a glaring example of the media trying to create the news, rather than simply reporting it.

It is certainly debatable how much influence these debates actually have on the election. It is nearly impossible, with any degree of accuracy, to determine what effect—if any—they really have on so-called undecided voters. But one thing is beyond question: those who have a “champion” going in, will have the same “champion” going out. Debates have little effect on the already convinced.

This point was made crystal clear by late-night talk-show host Jimmy Kimmel, when he decided to send a camera crew out on the streets of Hollywood on Tuesday afternoon, four hours prior to the presidential debate. Kimmel was skeptical of not only how much effect these debates have, but also if people actually watch them at all. He sent his crew out before the debate actually took place, yet his on-the-street interviewer asked people if they had watched the debate “last night.”

Kimmel’s suspicions were confirmed. The event itself is largely irrelevant and has zero influence on what people actually say. In fact, if Kimmel’s video montage is representative of the group of interviewees as a whole (not one of them said that Romney “won”), what they say to the camera has much more to do with what they think the interviewer wants them to say, rather than what they actually think; even to the point of flat-out lying about their favorite parts and that they “watched the entire debate.” It makes for great late-night television, but it makes for even greater social commentary about the role of the media on people’s behaviors and stated public beliefs. It is a solemn reminder of the unscientific nature of polls and surveys.

Now I would be the first to admit that taking a street poll in Los Angeles is hardly a representative sample of America as a whole. The State of California has a culture all to itself, and Hollywood has an even more peculiar and monolithic culture than that. I am not surprised by the lack of Romney supporters, nor am I surprised by the blind support of Obama. This is not the main point, however. What is really important, and what Kimmel’s video shows, is that people will willingly speak untruths when a camera is rolling. It apparently was not difficult to find individuals who were willing to claim that they watched a debate that hadn’t even happened yet. Not only would they lie about watching it, they were more than willing to perpetuate their lie by fabricating more lies, just to keep the ruse going.

The really big take-home lesson here is that “politics” has far less to do with what candidates say, than does the particular culture where the individual lives. This is why public polls and private votes will never accurately represent each other. What people say publicly and what they believe privately are two very different things. If nothing else, Jimmy Kimmel has proved this to be true with this video.