Ten Miles Square

September/October 2012 Do Presidential Debates Really Matter?

Remember all the famous moments in past debates that changed the outcome of those elections? Well, they didn’t.

By John Sides

The 1988 debate between Dukakis and George H. W. Bush featured this famous question from moderator Bernard King: ”Governor, if Kitty Dukakis were raped and murdered, would you favor an irrevocable death penalty for the killer?” Dukakis said, ”No, I don’t, Bernard,” and then, in classic politician fashion, changed the subject to something he apparently did want to talk about: his record on violent crime as governor and his views about the war on drugs. His response was judged inadequately emotional, given that the question referenced his own wife. The postmortem in U.S. News & World Report said, ”The governor couldn’t summon a hint of emotion in his response to a jarring hypothetical question about the death penalty for someone who had just raped and killed his wife.” But voters couldn’t summon a hint of emotion about this alleged gaffe. Gallup reports that the two 1988 debates had “little to no impact on voter preferences.” Stimson estimates that these debates might have added a point to Bush’s margin, which would have only widened his lead, not handed him the election.

In 1992, George Bush’s glances at his watch in the October 15 debate with Bill Clinton and Ross Perot have been characterized, in one account, as a ”display of impatience” that ”seemed to speak volumes.” Once again, that gaffe — and, in fact, all of the debates in 1992 — had only a small impact on Bush’s standing. According to Thomas Holbrook’s
detailed study, the second debate may have cost Bush only about 2 points. If anything, these debates mainly served to increase Perot’s standing at the expense of Clinton’s — although Perot’s rise could also be attributed to other factors, including his own thirty-minute campaign ads during this period.

This brings us to 2000, which is a clearer case of a small, but consequential, debate effect. Al Gore’s performance in the first debate—with its interruptions of George W. Bush and audible sighs— was widely lampooned and is also considered by some to be one of the “biggest blunders” in the history of presidential debates. After the debate, there was a swing of 2 or 3 points toward Bush, enough to give him a narrow lead. Erikson and Wlezien estimate that after all of the debates, Gore’s poll standing was about 2 points lower than it was before. Among the many factors that influenced the outcome of the 2000 election, the debates appear to have been one.

But, even in 2000, this focus on presidential debates obscures an important point: 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.

Moreover, other events may outweigh any debate effect. The 1980 election provides one example. After the debate and before the election, all of the following took place: prominent aides to both Reagan and Carter were forced to resign; economic data was released showing rising inflation; there was continued news coverage of the congressional investigation of Carter’s brother, Billy; and, finally, Carter was again rebuffed by Iran in his attempts to negotiate the release of the American hostages who had been held for a year. The Carter campaign’s internal polling showed Carter slipping even more after the setback in Iran than he appeared to be after the debate. ”It was all related to the hostages and events overseas,” said Carter’s pollster, Patrick Caddell. Reagan’s larger-than expected victory appeared to confirm that there was a late trend in his favor. Whether these events definitively hurt Carter in the closing days of the campaign is as difficult to determine as whether the debate helped Reagan. But the broader point remains: presidential campaigns present voters with a steady stream of information that may overshadow the debates.

A month ago, Obama’s advisers declared that they expect Mitt Romney to get “a surge of positive media attention and a boost in the opinion polls after the first presidential debate.” That may or may not prove true. What history can tell us is that presidential debates, while part of how the game is played, are rarely what decide the game itself.

John Sides is an associate professor of political science at George Washington University.


  • howie on September 05, 2012 11:02 AM:

    I would contend that Gore didn't "lose" that debate in real time; the instapundits and focus groups thought he won that night. He "lost" in the days following when the media decided it was appropriate to run clips of his isolated camera and microphone with the sound ramped up to make him look bad.

    There really was a media war on Gore.

  • JerzeyGeorge on September 12, 2012 9:29 PM:

    LoL , That's it, Lower those expectations for the soon to be ex-president. The Populace today is mush more tuned in to this election than past. The increased partisanship of the left has started to awaken the sleeping giant of the American Consciousness. In an actual debate Romney would destroy the president on the economic issue. And Biden?
    He has no chance, only a sudden heart attack will save him from certain embarrassment. But the debates will be nothing but staged fellatio of the Democrat candidates by a compliant and adoring media.
    But more and more people are noticing and acting on it.

  • Bob on September 29, 2012 8:27 AM:

    Minor correction: It was Bernard Shaw, not Bernard King, that asked the Kitty Dukakis question.

  • DontRoofRackMeBro on September 29, 2012 9:56 AM:

    JerzyGeorge should tell us about his crystal ball. Mr. 47% Rmoney bet against the American people and that will be his undoing on election day.

  • Sandalbar on September 29, 2012 11:41 AM:

    Ford's gaffe was actually prescient. Poland was actually more free than anyone knew. The resulting Spring in Poland was made possible by the fact that it was not, strictly speaking, under the boot of the Soviet Union.

  • CRA on October 01, 2012 4:41 PM:

    "The Populace today is mush"--JerzeyGeorge

    47% of it, at least? JG can't seem to decide whether Romney and Ryan are going to kick ass in these debates, or if the format and coverage guarantee they'll lose. But really, they'll get 50% of the allotted time, so if the debates are "nothing but staged fellatio of the Democrat candidates" it would have to be because Romney and Ryan decided to rhetorically blow their opponents.

    Maybe they should try that--nothing else has worked.

  • Juan on October 03, 2012 10:51 AM:

    These debates, partially due to the way they are structured, may not be a game changer for Democrats and Republicans, but they make a huge difference to 3rd party and independent candidates. While the Dems and Reps can rely on the party faithful and on a swing vote fallout from cautious hints mingled amongst the usual talking points, 3rd party candidates cannot do that. For them, these debates are seen as a great equalizer in a situation where they are greatly out-funded and underpublicized. They, therefore, must push the issue and sway the listeners to their side if they are to have a shot at the presidency. This cannot help but improve discourse.

    Unfortunately, their inclusion has been actively obstructed by the CPD's 15% rule. Here is a video that argues for lying to pollsters to get around that rule & expand debates.

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