Debates’ effects on changing voter perception
The very first televised presidential debate took place on Sept. 26th, 1960 between Kennedy and Nixon. Famously, those who listened on the radio believed that Nixon had much better responses. However, those who watched it on television perceived Kennedy’s calm demeanor and honest responses the real winner of the debate in comparison to Nixon’s haggard appearance. While there have been important moments in debate history, do debates really have that much of an effect on how people perceive the candidates during the current election season?
Debates can represent how well a candidate responds under pressure. However, both candidates actually do have ample time to prepare their responses, so the only real improvisation comes in lieu of direct attacks from the other presidential nominee. Debates focus more on the ability to respond eloquently and quickly to a predictable question, perhaps cleverly rebutting the opponent in the process — but they don’t do much to expand the voter’s understanding of the candidate’s stance.
“Most people have already made up their mind on these candidates,” Alan Fisher writes for AlJazeera. “The debates may provide a few more snippets of information to those wavering, but people tend to cheer their chosen candidate. And the candidates can largely control how they perform in the debates. They can be prepared, organised and ready to handle any attack.”
A multifaceted approach is important this election season. Trump’s campaign has done a lot to push the image that he barely prepares for these debates, fueled by only his drive to “Make America Great Again,” while Clinton comes well equipped and ready to debate despite constant interruptions (51, to be exact, in their Sept. 26 debate) on Trump’s part. Fisher writes, “If you lower expectations and your candidate does as you expected, you can then spin that it was a ‘fantastic performance’ and the narrative that is created the day after the debate is almost as important as the event itself.” If you think logically about this tactic, Trump’s campaign depends on this narrative — that way, if he does better than expected, this will impress the audience more than if Clinton performs as well as is already expected of her.
Especially lately, the usefulness of presidential debates has been coming into the spotlight. Washington Monthly author John Sides writes, “Debates aren’t the only thing that voters are hearing and seeing in the weeks before the election. So even a careful comparison of polls before and after a debate assumes, perhaps incorrectly, that any change was due to the debate itself or to news coverage about the debate — and not to other events, television advertising, or the like.” Unless there is a major stumble or the candidate shows up obviously underprepared, it has been discovered that the people watching are not very likely to change their stance on who they are planning on voting for.
In that regard as well, one cannot assume that viewers of the televised debates are hanging onto every word. Sides reported that during the debate between George W. Bush and Michael Dukakis in 1988, Dukakis blundered so badly onstage that many people thought it would most definitely affect his standing in the campaign. When asked by moderator Bernard King if Dukakis would support the death penalty for someone who “raped and murdered” his wife, Kitty, Dukakis calmly responded that he would not before moving onto the next question. People present at the debate could not believe how unemotionally Dukakis had responded to such a polarizing question, and yet the voters barely remembered this moment. Therefore it did little to affect general opinion of Dukakis. Neither of the 1988 debates had much effect on voter preferences and George W. Bush was already in the lead.
Scientist James Stinson did a study entitled “Tides of Consent: How Public Opinion Shapes American Politics” in which he found that, “there is no case where we can trace a substantial shift to the debates.” Stinson credits debates as maybe providing the slightest nudge in polls in the really close presidential races the likes of Richard Nixon and John F. Kennedy in 1960, Jimmy Carter and Ronald Reagan in 1980, or the 2000 race between George W. Bush and Albert Gore Jr. Still in nearly all those races, the candidate who the debate helped was already leading in the election.
While debates may be a staple in the minds of voters, they are actually not a very comprehensive or effective way of showcasing a presidential candidate’s projected response to the role and demands of the job. If citizens want to really get to know their candidates, either they should know well enough not to base their final decision off the performances in the debates, or they should call for a restructuring of the way in which democratic society weighs debates and what occurs during them. Sides sums it up quite well: “What history can tell us is that presidential debates, while part of how the game is played, are rarely what decide the game itself.”
Mila Phelps-Friedl is a second-year journalism major who’s totally over live-Tweeting childish arguments. You can email her at email@example.com.