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Will the Presidential Debates Matter?

Debate with President Gerald Ford (Foreign and Defense Issues) (October 6, 1976) Jimmy Carter

JFK debate with Richard Nixon in Chicago, September 26, 1960

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The first of three presidential debates is set for one week from today at the University of Denver (a fourth debate is scheduled between the vice presidential candidates). As we reported in last week’s Friday Roundup, the first debate will focus largely on the economy, with three of the six fifteen-minute segments dedicated to the economy, while the other three will focus on "health care," "the role of government," and "governing.” Will these debates really matter for the outcome in November? Probably not. But, at least a third of American households will tune in to root on their candidate.

As it happens, I’ve been reading a terrific new book just released this month – The Timeline of Presidential Elections by Robert S. Erikson and Christopher Wlezien – that delves into the elements of the presidential campaign timeline that matter for changing preferences in the aggregate vote. Using aggregate polling data, the authors document that voter intentions do change over the course of presidential campaigns. However, voter preferences are more volatile in some election years than others. Not surprisingly, party conventions play a major role in shuffling the electorate's vote choices and it is around convention time that voter preferences are the most volatile. Conventions thus do a good job of getting voter’s attention sufficiently enough to change minds. But preferences harden nearly every year following the party conventions, with fewer voters changing their minds in the fall general campaign season.

Following the conventions, the next big campaign event is usually the presidential debates. Unlike conventions, however, numerous political scientists have shown that the presidential debates do not matter and do not change voter preferences. Detailed studies of individual debates show that, at most, polls swing only one to three points in some of the more salient debates where one of the candidates out-performs the other, such as the 1980 debate between Jimmy Carter and Ronald Reagan (two points for Reagan, who was already in the lead); the 1988 debate between George H.W. Bush and Michael Dukakis (one point to Bush, who was already in the lead); the 1992 debate between Bush and Bill Clinton (probably cost Bush two points); and Al Gore’s endless signing in the debate with George W. Bush (about two to three points to Bush). Of these, the only debate that could have been consequential to the election outcome was the Gore v. Bush debate.

As Erikson and Wlezien point out, many commentators point to debates that are the exception to this rule. For example, the commentariate has perpetuated the argument that John F. Kennedy would not have been able to win the election in 1960 without his performances in the presidential debates. While the 1960 debates, which were the first in televised history or otherwise, drew the largest audience in the history of debates – about 60% of American households tuned in –polling evidence is not available to show that the debates in fact shifted the electorate’s preferences. 

Commentators also cite gaffes during presidential debates as causing shifts in voter preferences. One of the most memorable is when President Gerald Ford said during the 1976 presidential debate on foreign policy with Jimmy Carter that, “There is no Soviet domination of Eastern Europe, and there never will be under a Ford administration.” When Max Frankel of the New York Times incredulously followed up on the statement, President Ford refused to back down from his comments:

I don't believe, Mr. Frankel, that the Yugoslavians consider themselves dominated by the Soviet Union. I don't believe that the Romanians consider themselves dominated by the Soviet Union. I don't believe that the Poles consider themselves dominated by the Soviet Union. Each of those countries is independent, autonomous; it has its own territorial integrity. And the United States does not concede that those countries are under the domination of the Soviet Union.

The comments haunted him for the rest of the campaign. But aggregate level polls also show that voters decreasingly preferred Carter during the fall general campaign season, so the gaffe couldn’t have done all that much harm for Ford’s campaign.

Erikson and Wlezien show that across the ten elections with presidential debates from 1960-2008, voter intentions the week before and the week after the debate closely matched. Excluding the 1976 election, in which Carter’s lead dropped steadily throughout the fall, “the best prediction from the debates is the initial verdict before the debates.” However, while the debates do not matter as much as the party conventions, it’s not clear whether they matter more than other events in the general campaign. They also assert that evidence from the debates is fragile.

Voters aren’t likely to learn anything new in the debates, and even if their candidate doesn’t perform well, they aren’t likely to change their mind. This is due in part to the fact that those most likely to tune in are already politically engaged. However, the debates will make for excellent political theater and fodder for the commentariate. We’ll be making our own contributions here at Riding the Tiger, including an entry from presidential scholar Michael Nelson, as well as post-debate analysis. I’ll also be live tweeting the debates and you can follow me at @CarahOng.

Date edited: 09/26/2012 (2:59PM)


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