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Influence of the Vice-Presidential Debate

Monday, October 4, 2004 at 2:41 PM

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John Edwards and Dick Cheney will face off in this year's only vice-presidential debate tomorrow night in Cleveland. Most political pundits agree that debates rarely determine the outcome of a presidential election. But some say that this year could be different, especially in Ohio. The latest polls show Ohio is almost equally divided between the Republican and Democratic campaigns, with less than 6% of voters still undecided. So could what the vice-presidential candidates say sway voters and swing the state? ideastream's Karen Schaefer talked with voters at a local mall.

Most people in Ohio have already made up their minds about how they’ll cast their vote for President this November. These women spending a Sunday afternoon shopping at Great Northern Mall on Cleveland’s west side say they don’t plan to watch tomorrow’s vice-presidential debate.

But other voters who’ve already decided say they’re still going to tune in tomorrow night to hear what Dick Cheney and John Edwards have to say when they face off at Case Western Reserve University.

With Bush and Kerry proponents running almost neck-in-neck, it’s generally acknowledged that Ohio will be a close race. In 2000, George W. Bush carried the state with only a 6% majority. Green Party candidate Ralph Nader got 3% that might otherwise have gone to the Democrats. But this year, with Nader off the ballot, the outcome could be even closer. John Green, professor of political science at the University of Akron and director of the Bliss Institute for Applied Politics, says it could go either way. And that’s why he believes the debates could play an important role this year.

John Green: I think it’s really very close and is likely to remain that way until the election. But you know in a very close election, even a limited impact can make the difference. And it may very well be that something that is said in one of these debates will have an impact. And the vice-presidential debate, because it’s here in Northeastern Ohio, may have a greater impact in this state than it has nationwide.

In last week’s first presidential debate, the candidates were limited to discussion of foreign policy. Tomorrow, Edwards and Cheney will debate both the war in Iraq and domestic issues. Green says what most Ohio voters are looking for is more information.

John Green: Generally speaking, voters want to hear specifics. So I think what a lot of voters are looking for are those specific proposals about the future that can distinguish one candidate from the other.

David Gatteaux-Firth is a salesman in a men’s clothing store at the mall. He says he wants to hear clear differences between the two party’s tickets before he makes up his mind.

David Gatteaux-Firth: I’m going to definitely listen. Because I don’t know, they haven’t really defined themselves. It’s the same like how I felt when I was watching the presidential debate, I was waiting for Kerry to define himself as a candidate.

Firth says he’s also looking for more detailed information about where the candidates stand on key issues. He says for him the deciding issue will most likely be how the candidates propose to stabilize post-war Iraq. But he admits that the vice-presidential debate probably won’t be the determining factor in making up his mind.

David Gatteaux-Firth: There’s another presidential debate about domestic policy. I want to see that and then I will ultimately make my decision.

Professor John Green says recent polls show the economy and foreign policy are almost equally important to many Ohio voters. But he says it’s anyone’s guess who will come out on top on those issues in tomorrow’s vice-presidential face-off.

John Green: Some of my colleagues who study debates believe that nobody really wins a debate, you can only lose a debate.

Still, Green believes how the candidates perform - and more importantly what they say - could still influence Ohio’s undecided minority.

John Green: Very few people are likely to vote one way or the other just because of Senator Edwards or Vice President Cheney, but what they say about their bosses might make a big difference.

And while polls on Wednesday following the debate may show that voters think one candidate or the other did a better job, Green believes the real difference won’t show up until November 2nd. In Cleveland, Karen Schaefer, 90.3.

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