Do the debates affect a candidates success?
The presidential debates this year have been promoted like no other. Comedians like Seth Meyers have compared the ads for the debates to ones for heavyweight prizefights, and he is not that far off.
Given the amount of promotion, one would expect that these debates would be the critical factor in an election. But do they really have as much influence as it may seem? The answer is not what one might expect.
Proponents of this idea would be likely to point to this year’s Republican primaries. Carly Fiorina’s poll numbers shot up after a strong showing in the third Republican debate from three percent to 15 percent, according to the Hill.
It would seem that the debates can impact poll numbers, but there is very little evidence that they affect the overall outcome of the election.
A pair of studies that have analyzed the majority of presidential elections, in which debates were held, both found that the debates generally did not have much of an effect on polling data. Polling results would only change by a few points during the debate season, reported the Washington Monthly.
One of the studies found that there was only one election (Gerald Ford vs. Jimmy Carter in 1976) in which poll results changed after the debates, although it appears that it was part of a general trend in the election and not spurred by the debates.
Why don’t the debates matter that much, and if they don’t matter, why did Fiorina’s numbers change so much?
A big part of why Fiorina gained such a boost in the primaries while no general election candidate has is because there is a large distinction to be made between the primary elections and the general election.
With more grassroots candidates running who in past elections may not have been in the national press as much, primary debates can be a good way for them to introduce themselves to a larger audience.
The debates for the general election, however, occur several months after the final candidates have been chosen. Voters are already able to recognize the candidates and have a passing familiarity with their general stance.
Voters are also more likely to have settled on a candidate by the time of the general election, when the choice is largely binary (Democrat vs. Republican); voters have had much more time to think about their choice than during the primaries, when there can be so many people running that they cannot all fit on stage together.
One young voter whose experience mirrors this is Danny Waltenburg, ’20. “I don’t really think [the debates] changed who I’m going to vote for. I went in not favoring either candidate and watching the candidates just expanded my frustration,” he said.
Any change at all during the debate season could also be due to other factors. As a current example, Donald Trump’s recent poll slide is likely more due to the Access Hollywood tape than losing any debates.
Changes during the debate season rarely even change the outcome; they make it closer, but they do not actually change the outcome, according to the Washington Monthly.
While the debates might not have much of an impact on the outcome of the election, people voting definitely will—see you Nov. 8