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Presidential debates are rarely game-changers — but they are good for us

Candidates John F. Kennedy and Richard Nixon pose following their 1960 presidential debate.
Associated Press via Wikimedia Commons

Washington University was recently tapped — for the sixth time — to host a presidential debate next October, when the current, far-flung battlefield of candidates will be distilled to a ring for just two opponents.

Though it seems a lifetime away, the extraordinary popularity of the more recent GOP primary debates has many — including all those St. Louisans who will scramble for tickets to the candidate face-off this time next year — wondering how the eventual presidential debates might look. And it has some wondering, why do we care? Do debates even matter?

U.S. history textbooks and common knowledge often say, yes, they do. Popular political lore attributes Richard Nixon’s defeat in the 1960 presidential election in part to his mediocre visual presence in the nation’s first televised debate: pale, sick and stubbly, in contrast to John F. Kennedy’s famed perma-tan and easy smile. Common belief has it that presidential debates can be ‘game changers’ in tight races, changing voters’ minds just in time for one candidate to pull ahead.

Some political scientists, however, have found that simply untrue. While debates may help educate voters, they rarely change voters’ minds; like most political media, it seems that people pick up on the parts they already agree with. In that case, the question remains: what do presidential debates actually do?

Do debates alter the course of elections?

As it turns out, some debates — given the right electoral conditions — can change the direction of an election. Primary debates, for example, absolutely matter, said Ken Warren, professor of political science at Saint Louis University. They are winnowing processes, in which voters are given the opportunity to make up their minds about which candidates they like.

Mitchell McKinney, professor and chair of political communication at the University of Missouri, researches these kinds of political showdowns; he has consulted for C-SPAN and the U.S. Commission on Presidential Debates on debate formatting, presentation and content. He said that while primary debates inspire viewers to commit to a candidate, many people are already committed to a candidate—or at least a party—by general election season.

McKinney’s research, however, shows that anywhere from two to three percent of debate viewers will come into a presidential debate uncommitted, and subsequently commit to a candidate. “That small margin can have a difference in a general election debate,” he said — especially in tight races.

In this regard, the Kennedy/Nixon debate is a paradigmatic example of debates’ negligible effect. The polls of that era show that Kennedy already had an edge over Nixon in the days leading up to the debate, Warren said. But Nixon’s uninspiring televisual performance may have kept undecided voters home, or pushed them towards Kennedy—who only won, after all, by about 0.2 percent of the popular vote.

The problem with attributing victories like Kennedy’s to changed minds is that little data accurately reflects voters’ thoughts and opinions. Political researchers often have to work with voting behavior alone. So for both primary debates and presidential debates, it is difficult to determine whether some voters changed their minds, or some others simply became energized to vote.

Are debates good for the American public?

Some criticize televised debates as ‘political theater,’ but McKinney noted that debates have several important educational purposes despite their special effects. “This is what our candidates do,” he said: meet each other on stage, argue policy points, and outline their platform. Whether in the “bells and whistles” format of primary debates or the traditionally more subdued general election debates, viewers come out of the experience with a greater understanding of their electoral options.

There is no doubt that the public is interested in presidential debates — perhaps increasingly so. The last presidential debate in 2012 drew a viewership of 60-65 million, McKinney said. And the vice presidential debate between Sarah Palin and Joe Biden actually drew more viewers—an unprecedented phenomenon in American politics. On the primary side, McKinney said, about 25 million people watched this election cycle’s first Republican debate, which was roughly double the average viewership for a primary debate.

Those numbers signify millions of viewers who, by watching the debates, are learning about the candidates; getting to know more about campaign issues; and becoming more likely to participate in elections.

“While debates certainly have their weaknesses…and we can critique the format and the questioners…there’s great benefit to these moments,” McKinney said.

And as to the ‘political theater,’ McKinney said, it shouldn’t surprise anyone. “The intersection of entertainment, media, and so-called ‘real politics’ is hand-in-glove.”

What do debates mean for their host cities?

Debates are not government funded, nor funded by candidates’ campaigns; rather, a site must put in a bid for the opportunity to host a debate. And it is not surprising, McKinney said, that private educational institutions often get the nod.

“You know, the logistics are tremendous in terms of airport [and] hotel capacity,” McKinney said. “We sometimes refer to a general election debate as the ‘super bowl of politics.’ It’s where the nation, the world, is focused on a particular evening on the campaign, and of course the national press, thousands are there in the city.” The campus must have the capacity to host the candidates and their entourages, the media, the avid attendants…“There’s so much that goes into that.”

After all the work, however, comes a pretty good payoff. “I think it’s pretty obvious that it’s a good thing for St. Louis,” Warren said. “It’s an enormous advertisement for Wash U. and the St. Louis area.”

"St. Louis on the Air" discusses issues and concerns facing the St. Louis area. The show is produced by Mary EdwardsAlex Heuer and Kelly Moffitt and hosted by veteran journalist Don Marsh. Follow us on Twitter and join the conversation at @STLonAir.

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