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Week In News: The Debate Mattered

President Barack Obama and Republican challenger Mitt Romney squared off in their first debate this week. Some pundits say the debates don't really matter in the final outcome of the election, and yet polls show Romney got a big bounce following his performance. Host Guy Raz talks to Jim Fallows, of The Atlantic, about what, if any, effect debates may have on undecided voters.

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Transcript

GUY RAZ, HOST:

It's WEEKENDS on ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Guy Raz.

(SOUNDBITE OF CHEERING)

PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: We'll win Virginia again. We'll finish what we started.

MITT ROMNEY: We're going to get America back and keep it so strong that the world is going to wonder at the great things we've achieved. Thank you...

RAZ: President Obama and Mitt Romney both campaigning in Virginia yesterday. New tracking polls out today show a post-debate bounce for Romney, who has closed the gap in Virginia and Ohio.

James Fallows at The Atlantic joins, as he does most Saturdays, now for a look beyond the headlines. Jim, good Saturday to you.

JAMES FALLOWS: Hello, Guy.

RAZ: Let's start with the NPR third-party debate that we just hosted. Gary Johnson and Jill Stein both offering clear alternatives to President Obama and Mitt Romney. I wonder, Jim, if Wednesday's debate might have been a bit livelier with those two up on stage.

FALLOWS: Oh, it sure would have been, and I think most people would have liked to have heard that range of proposals, whether it was critique of the permanent war policy in the United States or climate change emphasis or whatever. So, yes, I think most people would like to hear that. And technically, it might happen before the last 12 years or so. The debate commission has said if a third-party candidate gets to 15 percent in national opinion polls, then they can join the debates as Ross Perot did 20 years ago.

Realistically, that's a very high barrier for a third-party candidate to meet. And also, realistically, the truth is the two major parties don't want to have the attention divided this way. One of the reasons why President Jimmy Carter, for whom I once worked, had only one debate with Ronald Reagan is that Carter simply refused to have a debate that included John Anderson, who was the third-party candidate in that era.

RAZ: Given that sort of a narrowness of the, you know, the views, the absence of fact-checking, I mean, this sort of canned nature of a lot of the responses, what value do the debates really have?

FALLOWS: From any platonic sense, you'd have to be pretty depressed with this ritual, and yet I think it actually is good for America. For one thing, it gets people's attention. Usually, during the entire course of four years, the public affairs event that gets the biggest American audience is the debates, especially the first one, even more than an inauguration, more than the conventions.

And even the people aren't really being informed about the details of this or that policy, they do have some sense of the candidates, what they're like as people, how they react under stress. So I think that they are an imperfect vessel for public engagement.

RAZ: Now, Jim, lots of pundits, even political scientists have been saying, you know, these debates don't matter. And this one will not matter. But then you look at the new tracking polls out today, taken after the debate. They show a significant bounce for Mitt Romney. So I wonder if those political scientists are wrong.

FALLOWS: I certainly think they are. And certainly, Governor Romney's performance was so much stronger and more focused and more engaged than the president's was this past week - it's no surprise if he is coming back. I'm sure from a political science point of view, it would be hard to prove that any one thing changed the presidential election because so many things go into them.

But it just - time and again, over the years, you see these shifts in momentum and attention and sense of confidence and sense of support for one candidate or another based on the results of a debate. I think we're seeing that right now.

RAZ: The narrative this week was a Romney comeback because he had a tough two or three weeks with a lot of bad media coverage. But then yesterday, the unemployment rate fell to its lowest level since January 2009, which, of course, is good news for the president. But I wonder, you know, whether these shifts in narratives ultimately matter at all.

FALLOWS: Well, I think that they do have an effect. I mean, probably, most voters have already made up their minds and did months ago about how they were going to vote in this election. They're weighing their own economic prospects. They're weighing war and peace around the world. They're weighing their sort of traditional loyalties to parties. They're weighing social issues too.

But in this final month of an election, people decide whether or not they're going to vote, whether they're going to try to enlist other people. So I think that almost day-by-day, for the month that's left, we're going to see changes in this narrative that will matter and should matter.

RAZ: That's James Fallows. He's a national correspondent for The Atlantic. You can find his blog at jamesfallows.theatlantic.com. Jim, thanks so much.

FALLOWS: Thank you, Guy. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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