Much of the news over the last few weeks has revolved around the Presidential debates. Even if one was only to skim a few articles, reporting appears to center around the potential impact each debate could have on the election. An NBC News article states that Wednesday’s debate provides an opportunity for “chang[ing] the dynamics of the race.” While an article on CBS News referred to Wednesday’s debate as a “high-stakes affair for both men.”Quotations from strategists and other political figures alike discuss how “enormous the stakes are,” and how Thursday morning could result in “a brand new race.” After hearing such strong rhetoric replayed throughout many forms of media, I wanted to know if the Presidential debates really have an effect on the outcome of the Election.
Numerous studies have been done over several decades to observe this relationship. Scholars have two opposing outlooks in the realm of research relating to this question. Overwhelmingly it appears as though “debates have only a limited ability to influence the attitudes of the electorate, and hence the outcome of the elections.” Scholars on this side of the argument state that debates tend to reinforce existing beliefs considerably but change them very little.
As stated in John Sides’ article titled “Do Presidential Debates Really Matter?” debates don’t affect the outcome because they occur later in the election season, after voters have their mind set on a preferred candidate. He explains the two types of people who normally watch Presidential Debates: party loyalists, who are set in their ways, and then those with a genuine interest in politics, who follow elections religiously. Instead of debates affecting the way in which people vote, he suggests that it tends to influence who they believe won the debate. Sides’ article references a study by political scientist James Stimson, which finds little evidence of game changers in the presidential campaigns between 1960 and 2000. Stimson writes, “There is no case where we can trace a substantial shift [in the outcome of the Presidential Election] to the debates.”
However, many scholars hold the belief that debates can and do influence the direction of the election. While there is literature acknowledging that “debates don’t very often convert partisans from one side to the other,” scholars such as William Benoit and Glenn Hansen suggest it is important to remember that a broader base of America’s electorate is now independent in terms of partisanship. According to this Yahoo news article, registered independent voters have outnumbered Democrats and Republicans for the last 2.5 years. While partisans may not change their vote because of arguments presented in a debate, there are plenty of undecided and independent voters who may. Given these circumstances, where a significant number of voters are non-partisans, scholars argue that voters “are likely to be more susceptible to influence from the debates.”
In addition to helping sway undecided voters, Benoit and Hansen suggest that debates may help to increase the confidence voters have in their candidate. An increase in a voter’s level of confidence helps ensure that he/she heads to the polls on Election Day. If enough voters experience an increase in confidence from debate-watching, this could positively impact the party whose candidate is a better debater. Scholars also point out that the number of people tuned in to watch the Presidential debates increases each year. This year, more than 67 million people tuned in to watch the Presidential debate, which is about 15 million more than those who watched it four years ago. As argued in this article, with such large and diverse audiences watching, a sizeable portion of whom are independent or undecided voters, the potential for influence on the outcome of the election is substantial.
While research provides many perspectives as to whether debates influence election results, it appears as though debates are more influential in races where a larger number of undecided or independent voters exist. As “back and forth” as election polls have been, I don’t think either candidate is willing to risk being underprepared for the remaining debates.