On Sept. 26, 2016, Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump went head to head at the first presidential debate. With an estimated viewing audience of over 84 million, this year’s first presidential debate was one of the most-watched debates in American history, with many viewers seeing it as a potential game changer in a close race. But do presidential debates matter? According to the most political scientists - not really.
Debates reinforce voters’ beliefs in candidates they already chose to vote for. Unless one of the candidates will radically change one of his or her proposed policies, the presidential debates rarely make people vote for the different party. Multiple studies of polling from before and after the general election debate showed little or no change in voters’ opinion. The researchers from one particularly comprehensive study took every available poll from presidential elections between 1952 and 2008 only to find one candidate who saw significantly more support after the debate – John Kennedy in 1960. During the first televised presidential debate in 1960, J.F. Kennedy looked directly into the camera as he answered questions. He came off as confident and sincere, whereas his opponent, Richard Nixon, frequently glanced off to the side to reporters, appeared unshaven and overall, looked sweaty and ill at ease. It was even alleged that most TV viewers declared Kennedy the clear winner whereas those who listened to the debate on the radio, preferred Nixon.
But nowadays, when TV is common, it is the media that plays a pivotal role in shaping the outcome of the debates. In 2004, Kim Fridkin and a team of scholars at Arizona State University ran an experiment. People’s assessments of who won the debate – and their evaluations of the candidates more generally – were affected by which media outlet they were assigned to read after the debate. The favorability of the coverage changed people's minds about the debate they had bad seen only moments before. The study concluded that the overall majority of viewers would side with whatever media outlet they usually read.
In general, the presidential debates tend to attract politically inclined viewers who already favor one party or the other. While debates do help voters learn new information and clarify the proposed policies, most people tend to cheer their chosen candidate. It also doesn’t help that debates are held so close to Election Day. In several states, early-in-person voting begins before the first debate.
What will shake up the presidential race are the unpredictable events that can happen between now and the Election Day – things outside candidates’ control – and how they react. But it almost never occurs. Moreover, both sides are prepared to react to a possible terrorist attack, unforeseen healthcare issue or a really big scandal.
Nevertheless, these presidential debates are important. Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump are on radically different ideological platforms and are, according to polls, the most disliked candidates in the history of U.S. Clinton is seen by many us untrustworthy and Trump as racist. For the millions of Americans, who can’t favor either of them, these debates could be a deciding factor. Or not.