Political Confrontation: Do the Presidential Debates Actually Matter?

So just this week, Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump had their very first televised debate.  And as expected, it was a very watched event.  According to CNN, the debate averaged around 80 million viewers over the twelve television channels that aired it.  And these were the Nielsen ratings, which only take into account people who watch traditional television at home.  There were many people who watched the debates at coffee shops, restaurants, bars, and even colleges.  There were also people who watched the debate online via streams on Youtube and the like.  So it’s very likely the debate viewership was much, MUCH higher than 80 million.

It was a record-breaking event, that’s for sure.  Twitter even called it their “most tweeted” debate ever.  But there’s one question that isn’t really asked: do presidential debates even matter?

According to this article, debates are an important source of new information for voters, information they can presumably use when making their decision on who to vote for.  The article also says that debates can “determine which candidates can tap the ever-widening pipeline of money in politics – from small donors kicking in a few dollars to wealthy elites deciding which future president, or super PAC, is the best bet for their millions.”  Yet it also says that the debate format feels outdated in a lot of ways, considering it has changed very little from its debut in the 1960’s.  It hasn’t taken advantage of the digital age, of the new ways that people gather and consume information.

But it is this line near the very end that stuck out to me:

“The report also recommends inviting third-party candidates and getting rid of live audiences, which too often are packed with donors and partisan supporters whose reactions – raucous applause or derisive boos – can make or break a campaign.”

Is that really true?  Can the reactions of these “stacked” audiences actually effect the outcome of a campaign?  Can the debate itself even effect the outcome?  It is true that debates are heavily favored by pundits and commentators because it gives them fodder to talk about in the days following.  But the actual lasting impact of these debates is at best questionable.

Here’s another article I found that takes a look at the findings of political scientists.  And they aren’t favorable to the actual impact of debates.  The article talks about the well-known “gaffes” during political debates, such as George H. W. Bush checking his watch and Al Gore sighing.  While these were widely talked about in the days following the debates, the statistics seem to say that they had little to no impact in the polls.  If anything, the debates only nudged a candidate closer to victory than they already were, usually by a scant 1-3 points.  They could have an impact in an extremely close election, but the article seems to suggest that it isn’t very likely.

So why is this?  Why do the debates not seem to matter?  While they are a great source of new information, it doesn’t seem like this information changes any minds.  People tend to go into the debates with their minds already made up, particularly due to the fact that the debates occur so late in the political season.  Take this most recent debate as an example.  It is only the first between the two major prospective candidates and election day is less than two months away.  So people have already set their minds to hating one or the other or even both of the candidates.  And it isn’t likely that one candidate’s performance in a debate is going to change their mind at this point.

That isn’t to say that it never happens.  I remember I had a friend back in 2008 during the McCain/Obama election season who was initially a McCain supporter.  He actually changed his mind after watching one of the debates (the vice-presidential one I believe) and found that he liked what the other side was saying more.  So it is possible that the new information can sway a voter’s mind, but the actual movement these voters make up is usually so slim as to be inconsequential.  As I said, most people already have their minds made up and aren’t likely to change them this late in the game.

Now the question becomes one of why do these debates exist at all?  Well, more than anything, they seem to provide commentators and pundits with talking points.  In the days after a debate, they’ll break down everything the candidates do or say, fact-check their statements, and weigh in with their opinions on who won and who lost.  Then, with their fifteen minutes of fame up, they probably collect their check and disappear out the door, biding their time until the next big political event.

And for the television stations, the answer is obvious.  Debates equal ratings.  Ratings equal money.  And money makes the world go round.  So by translation, debates equal money which equals the station making a profit.  So I imagine this is why they hype up the debates so much.  They want to attract more people to watch their particular station so that their ratings spike and they make more cash.  Because the television business is just that, a business.

So in the end, debates seem to be less about providing people with useful information and more about giving the “talking heads” something to talk about.

 

Well that’s all I have for this week.  Check back next Wednesday for another post, and as always, have a wonderful week.

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