As the three presidential and one vice presidential debates near, it is a good time to ask, “do the debates matter”? That is, do they shape the outcome of the race?
In general, political scientists have an answer to this: no. There are some exceptions (tbd), but in general, political science research does not find the debates to be particularly important in helping one candidate win—or lose the election, barring some exceptional circumstances.
Regular readers of this blog should not find this conclusion all that surprising. In general, political scientists rarely find that any single event has all that much to do with the outcome of an election. After all, most people come to the voting booth with a raft of assumptions, values and experiences that shape their vote in lots of ways. It would take quite an event to make most Democrats vote for the Republican candidate in most elections … or vice versa. The debates are just another single event in the political universe, and so are usually relegated to the status of “ehhh” in political science analyses of politics.
There are, it is fair to say, exceptions to this rule. The first televised debate, between John Kennedy and Richard Nixon, is thought to have solidified Kennedy’s image as a youthful vigorous leader among those who watched it. Nixon, by contrast, was suffering from the flu and refused to wear TV makeup and looked poorly. Similarly, the only 1980 debate between Ronald Reagan and Jimmy Carter is understood to have cemented Reagan’s win by showing Reagan to be a competent, commanding leader while Carter looked hapless. Finally, in 1988, Michael Dukakis’ robotic answer to a vile question about his likely reaction to his own wife’s rape and murder is seen to have encouraged a shift in support from Dukakis to George H.W. Bush … although that shift was already well underway by the time that debate occurred.
More commonly, debates solidify trends already in place. Even if a candidate get knocked back a bit in a debate—as happened in 1984 when Reagan looked confused and elderly in his first debate with Walter Mondale—leaders have time to recover in later debates. Most of the time, the person understood to be leading the race by this time in the election goes on to win it, suggesting that the debates do little to change the outcome. Notably, this is true even in one glaring exception: the election of 2000, in which George Bush was expected to win the popular vote but didn’t. The debates with Al Gore did not change the dynamics of that race appreciably.
So why watch? Well, two reasons really pop to mind. First, while candidates practice hard and work to make sure this doesn’t happen, there could always be a Carter/Dukakis moment when voters’ concerns about a candidate are seemingly confirmed. One can imagine Romney freezing on a human interest/sympathy question, or Obama suddenly admitting he believes in socialism … however unlikely that is.
Second, and really more importantly, in these debates it is at least possible that one or more of the moderators will push the candidate—Romney in particular—to flesh out what are otherwise vague answers. Romney/Ryan claim their tax proposal is revenue neutral, for example, because they will cut deductions to match losses in revenue due to rate cuts. But they have resisted telling us what deductions they would seek to eliminate … probably because the deductions they want to cut are popular ones like the home interest/property tax deductions enjoyed by millions of homeowners in the US. (Politicalprof among them.) Getting Romney to admit this would be an important piece of information for voters, even those who, like Politicalprof, like the home interest/property tax deduction but can understand why it might need to be eliminated in a tax reform plan.
Most of the rest of what you’ll hear about the debates is noise. People will recount the zingers, the one liners and the pithy comments. Tumblr will produce gifs at breakneck speed. The media will fervently declare “winners” and “losers” as they amp up excitement—and their ratings—for the next “clash of the titans” that isn’t. But at the end of the day, little will likely change in the arc of the race.
So do debates “matter”? Let me channel my inner political scientist and agree with my colleagues: “eehhh. maybe. sometimes.”
But I’ll watch any way. And so should you. You just never know.