Do Presidential Debates Impact Voter Opinion?

The immense political atmosphere today has generated many different arguments and policies to sway votes during elections, further reinforcing polarizing views across the country. With a controversial first debate happening in early October between presidential candidates Joe Biden and Donald Trump, we are stricken with the same age old question: how much do these presidential debates affect voter opinion in the long run? My friends and I have been asking the same question amongst ourselves as well.

Debates do have an effect on certain presidential elections, but it depends on the election and the time period. One of the most pivotal debates dates back to the Kennedy vs. Nixon election in 1960. It was considered to be the “first televised presidential debate in U.S. history” and its effect was drastic on ensuring Kennedy’s win at the time (Howard, 2016). While those who listened to the debate on the radio found that Nixon had a more cooling and calmer impact, those who watched Kennedy on the TV screen found him to be the superior candidate, outvoting Nixon in the end (Howard, 2016). Another pivotal debate was the 1992 debate between George H.W. Bush, Ross Perot, and Bill Clinton, when an independent candidate was put on the podium, considered to be an unusual move during that time period (Howard, 2016). While Clinton was able to keep steady and discuss crucial points in the debate, the President at the time, George H.W. Bush, was uneasy and looked uninterested in the debate (Howard, 2016). Eventually, Clinton was chosen as president over the incumbent President Bush because of the debates and other factors involved, proving that the debate was one of the central keys to Clinton’s win (Howard, 2016). 

While previous debates in history had an effect on voter opinion and perception of the candidates to the American public, how does it play in today’s political atmosphere? In a current Monmouth University polling, about 3% state that debates would make a difference on their choice of presidential candidates, 10% say that it may have an effect on their choice of candidates, and 87% said it’s not likely it would have an effect (Tompkins, 2020). Most candidates, according to research, state that no matter how a candidate performs in a debate, they already know who they will be voting for due to their merit and campaign efforts, even for those who are still undecided about a candidate (Nuwer, 2020). Because voters usually already have their candidate in mind two months before an election, debates don’t usually serve as a vital influence in changing which candidate an individual votes for (Nuwer, 2020). Some research states that voters can be confused or unsure of judgement between partisan candidates, and debates only exacerbate these tensions and polarize candidates even more (Ordway & Wihbey, 2016). With many incendiary ads and heavy media coverage of candidates both in the news and outside of it, voters can get easily swayed to vote one way or another, while debates don’t generally have the same effect (Ordway, 2020). 

Although debates may not necessarily change a voter’s opinion on a candidate entirely, they can be utilized for understanding a candidate’s potential policies and how they’re able to present their policies to the general American public. In recent research studies from 2000-2012, voters found that while their opinions don't change about candidates, their political knowledge of the candidates increased and their confidence in voting was more eminent (Mckinney & Warner, 2013). Because debates provide a platform for candidates to present their issues, voters are more inclined to comprehend policies after hearing what their candidates have to say on the podium (Tompkins, 2020). The best way to sway voter opinion is simple conversation about the candidates with friends and family, and canvassing done by campaigns (Tompkins, 2020). 

As the average voter, I believe that it is important to be informed about politics and to vote if you are able to! While debates may not matter as much, it is most important to register to vote and vote either early or on election day. But, as much as it might be excruciating to sit and watch presidential debates, it might be a good idea to give them a try, as it could maybe sway your opinion on a candidate. 

ballot box Photo by Element5 Digital from Unsplash

References:

  1. Howard, A. (2016, September 25). 10 Presidential debates that actually made an impact [Editorial]. NBC News. Retrieved October 21, 2020, from https://www.nbcnews.com/storyline/2016-presidential-debates/10-presidential-debates-made-impact-n650741 
  2. McKinney, M. S., & Warner, B. R. (2013). Do presidential debates matter? Examining a decade of campaign debate effects [Editorial]. Journalist's Resource. Retrieved October 21, 2020, from https://journalistsresource.org/studies/politics/elections/presidential-debates-research-aggression/ 
  3. Nuwer, R. (2020, October 20). Presidential debates have shockingly little effect on election outcomes [Editorial]. Scientific American. Retrieved October 21, 2020, from https://www.scientificamerican.com/article/presidential-debates-have-shockingly-little-effect-on-election-outcomes/ 
  4. Ordway, D., & Wihbey, J. (2016, September 20). Presidential debates and their effects: Research roundup [Editorial]. Journalist's Resource. Retrieved October 21, 2020, from https://journalistsresource.org/studies/politics/elections/presidential-debates-effects-research-roundup/ 
  5. Tompkins, A. (2020, September 30). Do debates affect presidential elections? Not much [Editorial]. Poynter. Retrieved October 21, 2020, from https://www.poynter.org/reporting-editing/2020/do-debates-affect-presidential-elections-not-much/