Ten Miles Square


November 08, 2012 10:58 AM In the End, the First Debate Didn’t Matter

By John Sides

In my piece on presidential debates in the September/October issue of the Washington Monthly, I argued that while debates can move the polls, they rarely decide the winner of the election. That is, they are typically not “game-changers” in the sense that they vault underdogs to victory. Only in 1960 and 2000 did the debates give the ultimate winner a potentially decisive nudge. More common, the candidate who is leading after the second party convention has gone on to win, according to Robert Erikson’s and Christopher Wlezien’s study of the 1952-2008 election.

For a while, 2012 looked as if it might be different. Indeed, a few pundits seemed to think that the first debate had shown political science was wrong. But at the end, 2012 largely confirms prior research. Romney gained somewhere between 2-4 points after the first debate, which is in line with previous debate bumps. The 4-point swing is most visible in polling averages, but there is some evidence that it was smaller, maybe in the 1-2 point range. (Part of the swing may have been driven not by the people changing their minds, but by the changing composition of “likely voters,” as Republicans became more enthusiastic and likely to declare themselves likely to vote.)

But no matter the precise size of the swing, the first debate was not the end of the story. In my piece, I noted how the impact of a debate can be overtaken not only by subsequent debates but by subsequent events in the campaign. In 2012, the second and third debates — in which Obama was judged to have “won” by pluralities or majorities of voters — did not clearly shift the polls toward Obama. But they did illustrate how difficult it is for one candidate to run the table and win every debate. More common is that the candidates fight to a draw. The late movement toward Obama, which is visible in the Pollster national average, also suggests how later events can matter. Perhaps in this case it was Hurricane Sandy.

Ultimately, the 2012 debates fit the historical pattern nicely. Much as in previous races, they had a noticeable impact but, in the end, Erikson and Wlezien’s conclusion holds: “the best prediction from the debates is the initial verdict before the debates.”

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


  • MBunge on November 09, 2012 11:22 AM:

    Why are we still having this conversation? Bush the Younger lost the 1st debate in 2004 in even worse fashion than Obama. I mean, it looked like there was something medically wrong with him. Then he went on to pretty unanimously lose the next 2 debates as well, just not as badly.


  • DisgustedWithItAll on November 14, 2012 10:33 AM:

    This is utterly and completely wrong. If Obama had brought his fight to the first "debate," the election would have been over on October 3.

    This is just Sides attempting to salvage a long-held belief that simply isn't true.

  • Nancy Snow on November 22, 2012 12:45 PM:

    I think Obama is way to smart, both politically and intellectually, to have intentionally not prepared for the first debate. I think he played it light, suckered Romney in, then let him have it in the second and third debates. Also, Obama's internals showed they were ahead and this was another way of allowing the real Romney to surface.

  • Rabbler` on November 23, 2012 7:58 PM:

    I guess we are to assume that there is no circumstance in which the debates could determine the winner. I must say that does seem a tad miraculous.

  • Jerry Reasoner on November 24, 2012 1:27 PM:

    The first debate did move the polls, but they were bound to tighten up anyway when the Romney campaign reached full swing.

    The Pollster polling average is misleading about the impact of the first debate. The Pollster average curve is smoothed in a way that makes it look like a trend was developing several days before a poll-changing event. You can get around that by looking separately at periods before and after an important event, such as the first debate.

    If you go to http://elections.huffingtonpost.com/pollster/2012-general-election-romney-vs-obama#!mindate=2012-09-27&maxdate=2012-10-03 you see a steady four-point Obama lead in the week leading up to the first debate. Then for the week after, http://elections.huffingtonpost.com/pollster/2012-general-election-romney-vs-obama#!mindate=2012-10-04&maxdate=2012-10-10 shows a nearly flat, nearly tied race, with Romney up one by 10 Oct. But Romney never had a better week, so even that seeming trend is questionable. By late October Obama was edging ahead, even before Sandy.

    My conclusion is that the event of the first debate did produce a Romney bump, and he kept most of that gain but not enough to win. So the debate mattered.

    But I think the mere fact of the debate mattered more than whether Romney was seen as winning the debate. It was a couple hours of free TV for the candidate who was less familiar to the public and had been painted unfavorably in news media and advertising. Just getting on TV and making a good personal impression was all he had to do. I don't believe Obama could have stopped that from happening.

    In the later debates, though, there was nothing more for Romney to gain. His human face and rhetorical skills had already got out there. They were always going to get out there eventually, even if there weren't any debates. But the first debate was a big opportunity for him to get them out there all at once, for free. He did that and tightened up the race, but that was all he could do, and it wasn't enough.