Do Presidential Debates Really Matter?

by John Sides on September 10, 2012 · 6 comments

in Campaigns and elections

In this month's Atlantic Monthly James Fallows has a long discussion of Mitt Romney's history as a debater and what it might mean in this presidential election.  It's interesting throughout, but I don't agree with this:

bq. If economic trends are bad enough—or, improbably, good enough—to turn the election into a runaway, we might look back and say that the debates didn’t matter. But in what gives every sign of being a close, bitter, expensive, and mostly negative contest, the way these men interact onstage could make a major difference. Debates played an undeniable role in the victory of John F. Kennedy over Richard Nixon, in 1960; of Jimmy Carter over Gerald Ford, in 1976; of Ronald Reagan over Carter, in 1980; of Bill Clinton over George H. W. Bush, in 1992; and of George W. Bush over Al Gore, in 2000.

I would frame this point differently, and I have a new piece at the Washington Monthly that says why.  My piece reviews the evidence about the impact of presidential debates.  Here is one paragraph that summaries my take:

bq. That presidential debates can be “game changers” is a belief almost universally held by political pundits and strategists. Political scientists, however, aren’t so sure. Indeed, scholars who have looked most carefully at the data have found that, when it comes to shifting enough votes to decide the outcome of the election, presidential debates have rarely, if ever, mattered.

Part of that conclusion is based on the research of James Stimson, Robert Erikson and Christopher Wlezien, and Thomas Holbrook.  Part of it is based on a look at each of the debates that "played an undeniable role."  Even in these cases, there is generally no solid evidence that debates mattered.  The polls didn't move, or the polling data are too thin to separate a debate effect from sampling error, or there were other events surrounding the debates that make it difficult to attribute movement in the polls solely to the debate.  And so on.

The best starting point for any discussion of the 2012 presidential debates is this fact: in the modern era, presidential debates have very rarely decided the winner, and even when they may have done so, the evidence is too thin to make a definitive conclusion.

Again, here's my piece.


LFC September 10, 2012 at 4:00 pm

Glancing through J. Sides’ Wash Monthly piece, I see at the end he calls the 2000 debate “a clearer case of a small, but consequential, debate effect” (that may not be a verbatim quote but it’s very close). Isn’t it ironic, for lack of a better word, that Gore might well have been hurt b/c he interrupted GWB once or twice and sighed a couple of times? Clearly, if a candidate sighs he’s not qualified to be president. No way. Btw see also the one comment (as of this writing) left by someone at the Wash Monthly site.

I remember the pride the League of Women Voters used to take in the debates when it was the sponsoring (or co-sponsoring) organization. I suppose in a way it may be just as well that some of those involved in organizing the debates (from ’76 on) are probably no longer alive and don’t have to read the political science research showing that the debates are a waste of time.

Benjamin Knoll September 10, 2012 at 7:22 pm

Thanks for this post. We’re hosting the VP debate this year at my institution and it’s good to see more political science research being publicized that combats the media narrative on the effect of presidential debates.

Jim September 11, 2012 at 12:21 am

It isn’t necessarily the case that presidential debates don’t matter, just that they don’t affect the outcome of the election. It is very likely they help reinforce people’s partisan predispositions in advance of the election, or serve to educate some of the public about candidate’s policy stances.

John Sides September 11, 2012 at 10:15 am

Jim: Maybe so, but the “game changer” trope that appears in so much commentary about debates depends on their changing the outcome of the election.

Ted Craig September 11, 2012 at 10:23 am

While VP debates would seem even less meaningful, I wonder if anybody ever looked at those? I’m thinking of the 2004 debate in particular, although the ’88 VP debate created the most memorable quote of the campaign.

Ben September 11, 2012 at 10:46 am

I found this article highly interesting. Presidential debates clearly have a much smaller impact than many other aspects of campaigns, such as total money raised and relevant political views. However in a close election the difference in candidates charisma and speaking skills could be the difference in who wins an election, especially considering how many people watch political elections (about 53 million in 2008). It’s also important to think about how a single mistake in a debate today could be much more detrimental to a candidates electability than it would have been 20 or 30 years ago, because of how quickly and wide spread news is distributed on the Internet. This article also made me consider which aspects of debates are the most influential on the general public. Is it the way people look, or the points they make? What matters most, the content of a candidate’s answer, or the way in which they word their answers?

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