Political Debates: Do they really matter?

By: Nicole Winters-Brown

As the nation wrapped up it’s second Presidential nominee debate, the third in a line of four debates between the Presidential or Vice Presidential candidates some are questioning what the purpose is for the debates and how much the debates really matter when the election is only a few weeks away. For those of you who have gotten used to a debate lighting up your Facebook, Twitter, blog, and newsfeed every week, the next and last debate is Monday, October 22, 2012 at 9 PM and the topic will be foreign policy.

The first Presidential debate for the general election was in 1960 between John F. Kennedy and then-Vice President Richard Nixon. Following that debate, several Presidential election candidates refused to debate their opponents. The next Presidential nominee debate was not until 1976 between Jimmy Carter and Gerald Ford. Historically there have been only two election cycles where the outcome seems to have turned due to the debates. One was in 1980 when Reagan overwhelmingly won the debate and moved ahead of Jimmy Carter. That debate, however, was the only head-to-head debate for that election, rather than the series of debates held for this election. The other debate was in 2000 when George Bush moved ahead of Al Gore. That example also comes with a caveat though because while Bush won the election, he lost the popular vote.

The most commonly cited reason for holding the debates is that it helps win over otherwise undecided voters. After the first debate between former Governor Romney and President Obama, where Romney was found to be the winner of the debate by both Democrats and Republicans, there was a boost for Romney in the polls. It is not unusual that the challenger gets a boost following the first debate. In the Presidential debates from 1976 to 2008 there were only two cases where the incumbent candidate gained ground over his challenger in the first debate: Gerald Ford in 1976 and George H.W. Bush in 1988.  The second debate’s winner is much less predictable. This year’s second debate showed a bump in polling numbers for President Obama, who was arguably the winner. However, a comparison of polls before and after the second debate shows no evidence of significant groups of voters moving from one candidate to another. Instead, some argue that the debates are meant to mobilize the respective bases. If that is the case, then the polling bumps may just be reflective of a more energized voting population as a whole.

Usually poll numbers jump in a debate’s immediate aftermath, although usually very modestly. In fact, political scientist Tom Holbrook notes that the absolute change is something around less than 1% across the last 16 presidential debates (see his chart here). Generally speaking, while the poll numbers may move during the immediate aftermath of the debates, they eventually return to where the numbers were before the debate season began. Why is this? One view is that neither candidate is without gaffes, exaggerations, and expressions or mannerisms that reflect poorly on them. No one candidate is completely flawless- especially across several debates. Some may argue that the relative small shift in poll numbers is because most of the population has determined which candidate they are going to vote for before the debates even start. In fact, many states have already opened up early voting and several thousand people have already submitted their absentee ballot (see a helpful chart of early and absentee voting deadlines by state here).

Another point is that, while debates may help crystalize issues and affect swing voters, there are too many other ingredients that go into the voting equation: the 24/7 media coverage (including social media), constant advertising, current events, and of course the campaign trail appearances that highlight issues on the local level. In other words, there are many more opportunities for America to watch and listen to the candidates, more gaffes and missteps to be made, and certainly more debates to be had, even if the candidates are not in the same room at the same time.

Sources:

Impact of presidential debates on election questionable – The Denver Post
http://www.denverpost.com/news/ci_21577759/impact-presidential-debates-election-questionable#ixzz29arpzVHL

Presidential debate schedule and recordings.
http://www.2012presidentialelectionnews.com/2012-debate-schedule/2012-presidential-debate-schedule/

The First Debate Usually Helps the Challenger
http://fivethirtyeight.blogs.nytimes.com/2012/10/03/first-debate-often-helps-challenger-in-poll

Early Voting and Absentee Ballots by State chart by the National Association of Secretaries of State http://nass.org/index.php?option=com_content&view=article&id=223&Itemid=391

Do Undecided Voters Still Matter?
http://www.latimes.com/news/politics/la-pn-undecided-voters-election-2012-20121017,0,5461169.story

A History of Presidential Debates
http://abcnews.go.com/Politics/OTUS/fullpage/history-presidential-debates-17368970

Will Obama Debate Performance Shift Polls?
http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2012/10/18/obama-debate-poll_n_1979490.html?utm_hp_ref=elections-2012

Instant Polls Give Obama Edge in Second Debate
http://www.usatoday.com/story/theoval/2012/10/17/obama-debate-polls-romney-cnn-hosfta/1638799/

Romney will Ride Huge Polling Bump Into Second Debate
http://www.humanevents.com/2012/10/15/hodge-romney-will-ride-huge-polling-bump-into-second-presidential-debate/

Romney Closes in on Obama After Debate, Poll Shows
http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2012/10/07/mitt-romney-poll_n_1946604.html

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