I guess I shouldn't be surprised that the American voter can be pretty superficial sometimes, but I still find this disheartening.
Turns out, candidates who "won" past presidential debates didn't always win the elections that followed, but candidates who were found more "likeable" in the debates did. Andrew Romano of Newsweek points to unlikeable put well-prepared debaters who went on to lose in November and then says:
In 1984, Reagan struck voters as about 20 percent more likeable than Mondale. Bush defeated Dukakis largely because he "triumphed in the congeniality competition"--and later lost to Clinton largely because he didn't. After the Oct. 17, 2000 debate, voters rated Bush the more likable candidate, 60-30; four years later, Dubya whipped Kerry 52-41 in the same department. In other words, the candidate who won the debates may not have won the subsequent election--but the candidate who came off as most congenial almost always did.
Romano adds that all of this bodes well for Obama. "According to the CNN poll, viewers found the Illinois Democrat more likeable last night by a margin of 65 to 28 percent--a far larger spread than either Reagan, Bush, Clinton or W. ever enjoyed in similar surveys."
This information does not suggest a direct correlation between likeability in debates and election victories (ie people aren't saying, "He was a nice dude in that debate I remember watching three weeks ago, I'm voting for him."). Instead, it suggests that candidates who know how to appear friendly in the debates, regardless of their command of the issues, also know how to win voters over the course of a campaign.
I don't know why I'm startled by this. We lived through eight years of George W. Bush after all, a man who took the White House because his debate opponent sighed too loudly...