A Matter of Debate

The second of three debates in the 2016 presidential election season aired last Sunday. Everyone knows the stakes are high and the race is close. Pundits are standing by to analyze every moment – every word and facial expression – for signs that the balance is shifting one way or the other. Every gaffe and comeback is scrutinized. Every fact is checked and rechecked. And at the end of the battle, a winner emerged to claim their share of undecided votes. Next stop, White House. And now to Michael Buffer with the ring announcements . . .

Well, not exactly. Though the presidential debates are a major media event and bring in the greatest viewership of the whole campaign season, they aren’t really as important as they seem, at least as far as polling numbers go. There is a lot of debate about this issue, but the numbers don’t lie. We like to watch the debates and declare winners and losers, but it’s very rare that debates actually change votes.

The first televised debate occurred in 1960 between John F. Kennedy and Richard Nixon. By pretty much everyone’s account, Kennedy was the victor. Nixon was no match for Kennedy in front of the camera, and Kennedy took the election. Making what is widely regarded as the biggest debate gaffe in history, Gerald Ford confidently asserted that, “There is no Soviet domination of Eastern Europe,” and eventually lost the election. Clearly, this is evidence that debates can determine elections, right?

Though these are two of the biggest nights in debate history, neither yielded a movement in voter preference greater than the margin of error (about three points). Nixon was already losing the election when he lost the debate to Kennedy. Ford trailed Carter by a huge margin but actually increased in the polls shortly after the debate before ultimately losing the race.

There are several factors limiting the impact of the debates. The first is audience. Most voters have made up their minds long before the debates, which begin only a month or so before the election. Another factor is loyalty. After the first Obama/Romney debate, more than 80% of Democrats thought Obama won, while more than 80% of Republicans saw a clear Romney victory. By October of an election year, voter objectivity is long gone.

Finally, the debates themselves are very orderly. The candidates are at the end of a very long campaign. Both have mastered their stump speeches and know what to expect from the competition. By this stage in the game, there are very few surprises. A sudden outburst of game-changing information is about as likely as a candidate being struck by lightning. The whole event is exhaustively rehearsed and often comes across that way.

To say that the debates have little effect on the polls is not to say they are irrelevant. There is definitely value to seeing the two candidates sparring over policy issues and clearly defining their differences before election day. Debates are also a good way to reinvigorate your base. Just don’t count on winning or losing the game in one night. Stay tuned for more campaign trends and fundraising facts and strategies with Raise The Money.