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'Who Won?' Is the Worst Question to Ask About a Candidate Debate

Debates have many useful functions, but determining winners and losers is not one of them.
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(Photo: Yongcharoen_kittiyaporn/Shutterstock)

(Photo: Yongcharoen_kittiyaporn/Shutterstock)

After last week's Democratic candidates' debate, we heard the familiar arguments in the media about just who won. The consensus from most mainstream media sources seemed to be that Hillary Clinton dominated the event. This led to quick pushback from some who noted that Bernie Sanders did extremely well according to other metrics. So who won? Actually, that's a very silly question, but I'll get to that in a bit.

At Alternet, Adam Johnson assembled probably the most comprehensive critique of the Hillary-won camp. He cites numerous online polls and focus groups showing Sanders winning overwhelmingly. This, he notes, stands in sharp contrast to the claims of many pundits that Clinton was the winner.

There are a few problems with this whole discussion. First, candidate debates, at least as commonly practiced in the United States, do not contain measures for determining an actual winner. Competitive debating, as you might have done in high school or college, actually does have stringently defined rules and ways for objective judges to determine which team has accrued more points. Pretty much every sport has clearly defined ways of determining who won. Such rules and measures do not exist in most candidate debates today, certainly not at the presidential level.

Online polls have major bias problems since people can usually self-select into them. This means that the people who participate tend to be unusually enthusiastic and tech-savvy.

Second, relatedly, people who tune in to watch candidate debates, particularly this early in a campaign cycle (and while there's a major baseball game on another channel), tend to be already intensely interested in politics. Those sorts of people have likely already thought about the candidates and have committed to one of them. So the overwhelming majority of people watching last week were already devoted supporters of Sanders or Clinton.

As we know from a great deal of research in political psychology, people are apt to hear only good things out of the candidates they already like, and they'll tend to tune out the things they don't like. Meanwhile, they'll tend to interpret whatever the other candidate says in the worst possible way. For example, if you're a Sanders supporter, you probably found Clinton's criticisms of his gun rights stance cold and calculating, and you think the audience should take into account the fact that he's from a rural state with a lot of gun owners. If you're a Clinton supporter, you probably found Sanders' stance out of touch and irresponsible, and you thought it was appropriate for her to call him on it. Who you think "won" that round depends a good deal on whom you already supported.

The audience that tuned in to watch invariably saw their candidate doing well. It re-affirmed the things they liked about their preferred candidate and reminded them of what they didn't like about the other one.

OK, all that said, can't we still put it to a vote (or at least a public opinion poll or focus group) to see who did better? Sure, but these different methods all come with their own problems. Focus groups can be interesting (particularly if someone switched from one candidate to the other) but aren't necessarily very representative of the population at large. Online polls have major bias problems since people can usually self-select into them. This means that the people who participate tend to be unusually enthusiastic and tech-savvy, and are thus somewhat younger and more affluent and educated than the population as a whole. So, yeah, that sounds like Sanders' supporters.

A more scientifically constructed YouGov poll conducted Wednesday and Thursday, meanwhile, found Hillary Clinton winning the debate by large margins. But the problem with that was that respondents were being asked their opinions several days after the actual event. Their opinions were probably heavily massaged by the media coverage in the 24 hours following the debate.

All in all, figuring out who actually won this event is a fruitless search. But besides that, what if we could figure it out? What purpose would that serve? Would it make the winner any more likely to actually win the nomination? Not likely. Would it give us much of an idea of how well they would do in a non-partisan room against Jeb Bush or Marco Rubio or Donald Trump? Not really.

Debates can serve a number of valuable functions. They can allow us to watch the candidates think and respond in real time, going beyond their stump speeches. They can force candidates to make commitments to audiences, commitments which they would later work to meet once in office. They can be useful for airing disagreements within a party. They can help convey a party's or candidate's messages to a larger audience.

But they're not suitable for determining winners and losers. They're just not sporting events, despite our best efforts to treat them as such.

What Makes Us Politic? is Seth Masket’s weekly column on politics and policy.