Why Debates Matter - Classroom Law Project

Selecting the Next President
Why Debates Matter
by Benjamin Knoll, Assistant Professor of Government
Centre College, Danville, KY, host of the 2012 Vice Presidential Debate
It is hard to separate the presidential campaign of 1960 from the image of a youthful, confident
John Kennedy debating a disheveled, perspiring Richard Nixon.
Gerald Ford’s debate claim that “there is no Soviet domination of Eastern Europe” surely didn’t help
matters in his unsuccessful bid for reelection in 1976.
Ronald Reagan masterfully used the debate format to his advantage, giving us such memorable
political phrases as “Are you better off now than you were four years ago?” and “I am not going to
exploit, for political purposes, my opponent’s youth and inexperience.”
Once held, debates often become the focus of how the campaign is historically remembered.
Candidates don’t even have to say anything to make a memorable impression and affect the
campaign narrative. For example, do we even need to mention Al Gore’s annoying sighs and facial
expressions during the first 2000 debate?
There are good reasons that debates have become such an important part of the modern
presidential campaign. They are the only part of the campaign where the voters have a chance to
see the two (and occasionally three) candidates in the same place at the same time, answering the
same questions and responding to each other’s arguments in real-time. As a result, the three
presidential debates (and one vice presidential debate) are the most-viewed events of the entire
campaign. More than 50 million Americans watched the 2008 debates between Barack Obama and
John McCain. That’s more than one out of every five adult Americans.
So what effect do presidential debates have on the campaign and, most important, the final result
of the election? Political science research offers several insights.
First, through the questions that the moderators ask and the answers that the candidates give,
debates often can help determine which issues will be discussed and can set the tone for the last
month of a campaign. For example, in the third and final 2008 presidential debate, John McCain
said, “I would like to mention that a couple of days ago Senator Obama was out in Ohio, and he
had an encounter with a guy who’s a plumber; [his name] is Joe Wurzelbacher.”
Within 24 hours “Joe the Plumber” was a household name, a symbol of middle-class Americans
everywhere and the newest addition to the American political lexicon. As a result, Joe the Plumber
was a permanent rhetorical fixture during the last three weeks of the campaign, as both Obama
and McCain sought to convince Americans that their particular economic plan would be of most
benefit to “people like Joe.”
Second, debates are significant because they provide information to voters. Candidates are able to
share their backgrounds, qualifications, and policy views directly with the American people.
Research studies have shown that many voters pay attention. The results of one study suggest that
people were about 15 percent more likely to be able to answer specific questions about the policy
stands and personal characteristics of the candidates after watching the third presidential debate in
2004 between George W. Bush and John Kerry.
Of course, what we really want to know is the extent to which debates affect the ultimate outcome
of presidential elections. After all, the media often report on debates as if the fate of the election,
Selecting the Next President
and ultimately the entire planet Earth, depends on every particular phrase and gesture that the
candidates make during the 90 minutes of each of the four debates.
The traditional view among political scientists, however, is that votes are rather predictable. A
famous study published in 1960 showed that most people simply vote along party lines. Indeed, in
2008 more than 85 percent of Democrats voted for Senator Obama and virtually the same
proportion of Republicans voted for Senator McCain. It’s not surprising, then, that research studies
have also shown that many debate viewers are often strong partisans who are simply cheering for
their favored candidate, much the same as they would cheer for a favorite football team during the
Super Bowl. For these voters, the presidential candidates are simply “preaching to the choir” and
debates are rarely persuasive in terms of affecting their ultimate vote choice.
More recent studies, however, have begun to show a more nuanced view of the effect of debates
on voter opinions. A 2003 study, for example, showed that while many 2000 debate viewers were
indeed strong partisans who didn’t come close to changing their minds about whom to support,
there were three specific groups who were much more open to persuasion: 1) independent voters
(specifically “pure” independents who didn’t lean toward one party or the other), 2) mismatched
partisans (in other words, Republicans who were supporting Gore or Democrats who were
supporting Bush), and 3) undecided voters.
Collectively, studies have suggested that these three groups usually make up anywhere from 20 to
30 percent of the population a month before any given election—a substantial number.
A 2007 study suggested that political knowledge also makes a difference. Those who know a lot
about politics are fairly confident about their opinions and don’t often change their minds as a result
of watching debates. Those with low or moderate levels of political knowledge (more than threefifths of the population), however, are more likely to be open to persuasion from debate rhetoric
from the candidates and to update their opinions of the candidates as a result of watching
presidential debates. (So as not to overstate this effect, however, it should also be remembered
that even though those with lower levels of political knowledge are more open to persuasion from
political debates, they’re also ultimately less likely to turn out to vote than those with higher levels of
political knowledge.)
Now in terms of determining the ultimate outcome of the election, research has shown that
campaign events, including debates, definitely matter. But they matter within the context of other
more fundamental contextual factors like incumbency, international conflict, and prevailing
economic conditions. In other words, even the best debate performance in the world would likely
not save an incumbent president in the middle of an unpopular war and a deep economic
recession. Conversely, an incumbent president during a time of relative peace and prosperity would
very likely coast to reelection despite a weak debate showing.
So can we disentangle the effect of debates from the effect of these wider contextual forces? A
number of studies have attempted to do just that, isolating the independent effect of debates on the
final outcome of presidential elections, controlling for other factors such as incumbency, war, and
the economy. Collectively, these studies suggest that debate performance can indeed “move the
needle” on the final vote totals for the candidates by somewhere between 1 and 3 percent. While
this might not seem like much, it can be decisive in close elections.
Unless economic or international conditions substantially change between now and November, the
2012 election is shaping up to be one of the closest and most polarized in modern American
history. The final vote tally may very well result in a razor-thin margin of victory for either candidate.
In that case, what happens at Centre College this coming October may very well have important
and far-reaching consequences.
Source: /www.centre.edu/centrepiece/2012/spring/debates_matter.html