Apparently Everybody Wins in Presidential Debates

A new study of U.S. and Canadian political debates shows all candidates usually come out ahead.
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A new study of U.S. and Canadian political debates shows all candidates usually come out ahead.

We tend to think of debates as decisive moments in the process of choosing a national leader — turning-point events in which a clear winner emerges. New research suggests they are nothing of the sort.

“A debate tends to equalize the candidates,” said political scientist Andrea M.L. Perrella of Ontario’s Wilfrid Laurier University. “Assuming one of the candidates isn’t stuttering and hesitating, a debate is most likely not going to change people’s minds. It may tip a few people’s opinions, but it will not turn a 4-point gap into a 10-point gap. If anything, it may turn a 4-point gap into a 3-point gap.”

That point — that the candidates’ favorability ratings usually narrow in the wake of a debate — is a key conclusion of the study “Systemic Effects of Televised Candidates’ Debates,” just published in The International Journal of Press/Politics. The research debunks much of the conventional wisdom surrounding these high-profile events, according to Perrella, who co-wrote the paper with André Blais of the University of Montreal.

“There is a popular notion that the outcome of an election hinges on the results of a debate,” he said. “There have been decisive debates in the past, so our memory of debates seems to be based on knockout blows or abrupt changes of public opinion. But that’s not validated by the evidence.”

Rather, Blais and Perrella found debates tend to raise the favorability ratings of all candidates — who, after all, tend to be polished and persuasive in such a setting. If a voter’s perception of a candidate has been shaped largely by sound bites or negative ads, he or she may be pleasantly surprised to find this demonized figure coming across as reasonable and competent.

“Generally, everybody comes out of a debate better off,” Perrella said. “As we have learned from Hollywood, any publicity is good publicity. As long as we’re talking about the candidates, we’re thinking about the candidates, and that thinking process may elevate the evaluations. The less we know, the more we are prone to render a negative evaluation.”

Perrella and Blais reached their conclusions by studying the effects of televised presidential debates in the United States since 1976 and party leader debates held in Canada since 1988.

”We looked at every debate that took place in the middle of a survey that tracked public opinion over time,” Perrella said. “That allowed us to track the effect of each debate, if any, by comparing before and after on ‘feeling thermometers,’ which are far more sensitive to changes in public opinion than ‘vote intentions.’”

Specifically, voters were asked to rate their feelings regarding each candidate on a scale of 0 to 100. They found that, on average, ratings for Democratic presidential candidates went up very slightly — 0.2 point — while ratings for Republican candidates increased a bit more — 1.3 points. The overall average of all candidates went up 1 point — a number that was duplicated precisely in the Canadian results.

In other words, debates are not zero-sum events; instead, both sides tend to “win.” Given that, it is not surprising that they seldom “result in dramatic new trajectories,” Perrella said.

“Debates are just one piece of a bigger picture,” he said. “We have ads, campaign spots, news coverage. We tend to see rehearsed lines in debates; candidates tend to be ‘on message.’ A debate becomes a live reproduction of what we’ve already seen in the ads. If the ads had an effect, a debate can reinforce that slightly, but it’s not likely it can reverse it.”

Of course, that doesn’t stop the campaign strategists from trying to manipulate audience response. This can take a number of forms, from lowering expectations (“Debating is not our candidate’s strong point”) to finding an optimum balance between image and content.

“They have experts asking, ‘Who is likely to watch the first 20 minutes? Who is likely to stay tuned for the whole thing?’” Perrella noted. “I wouldn’t be surprised if they time their performance accordingly. For the first 20 minutes, if that’s the peak of the audience, they may be less focused on content and more focused on projecting competence. Later on, when all the policy wonks have stayed tuned, they may give more specifics. I’m sure they’re thinking about such things.”

The “thermometer” surveys do not indicate which voters actually watched or heard the debates and which simply read about them or listened to later reports. “The effect of a debate is not necessarily due to watching it but due to the discussion afterwards,” Perrella said. “Sometimes that’s where the media can play a role in picking a ‘winner.’ The public may follow that consensus.”

Perrella conceded there have been a few game-changing debates in which one candidate made a serious blunder. The most famous of these in recent decades is the 1976 presidential debate in which President Gerald Ford insisted, “There is no Soviet domination of Eastern Europe, and there never will be under a Ford administration.” Journalists noted that was clearly false, but Ford refused to admit he had made a mistake, and analysts believe the incident hurt his campaign against Georgia Gov. Jimmy Carter.

In Perrella’s analysis, it was Ford’s fumbled follow-up that arguably did the most damage. For a debate mistake to be decisive, he said, it must be “blatant, obvious, immediately hyped, and the individual who committed the error would have to flop in the recovery. You have to make more than one mistake for it to stick.”

Another factor is whether a misstatement plays into the fears the public already holds about a candidate.

“We have seen cases in Canada where a leader has been ahead of the polls in spite of some reservations the voters have about him,” he said. “That leader then takes a minor misstep that reminds us (of why we were hesitant to support him initially), and it hits a raw nerve, and we go back to our old assumptions. If voters have reservations about either McCain or Obama, and those reservations are activated in the debate, that may have an effect.”

So what will Perrella be looking for as he watches the Obama-McCain matchups? “I want to see if either of them comes out swinging. The campaign, like so many others, has taken a negative tone; I want to see if that’s the strategy that will be employed at the debates — accusing the other candidates to be insufficiently skilled or out of touch.

“I’ll be looking to what extent they are similar in terms of tone, presentation and level of depth of their arguments. We talk about how each candidate distinguishes himself from the other. I want to see to what extent they’ve become indistinguishable.”

What he won’t be looking for is a game-changing moment.

“When you have a tug of war between two equally muscular candidates,” he said, “don’t expect the rope to move much.”

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