Presidential debates: Game-changers or time-wasters? (+video)
Presidential debates rarely make a difference in the outcome, according to the last half century of polling results. But rarely doesn't mean never, and oops moments can be critical. Ask Rick Perry.
Do presidential debates sway voters? Or are they political entertainment that just affirm electoral choices Americans have already made?Skip to next paragraph
Peter Grier is The Christian Science Monitor's Washington editor. In this capacity, he helps direct coverage for the paper on most news events in the nation's capital.
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Mitt Romney hopes they’re the former. He and his campaign are looking to Wednesday night’s debate in Denver as a way to overcome President Obama’s stubborn lead in the polls. Romney supporter Gov. Chris Christie (R) of New Jersey has gone so far as to predict that the outcome of the verbal tussle will turn the race upside down.
If so, that will be out of step with the historical trend, say some pollsters and political scientists.
Gallup, for instance, has gone back through a half century of its polling results and found only a few examples of presidential debates that made an impact on election outcomes.
There have been nine sets of presidential debates since 1960, points out Gallup. (Lyndon Johnson refused to debate in 1964, and Richard Nixon followed suit in 1968 and 1972.) In only two of these nine political cycles did the candidate who trailed prior to the debates come from behind to win.
And those two were perhaps the most famously close elections of the past 60 years. In 1960, then-Vice President Richard Nixon was up by one percentage point when he met Sen. John F. Kennedy in the first televised presidential debate on Sept. 26. By the time of the fourth debate, in late October, Mr. Nixon trailed Senator Kennedy by four points.
Ultimately, Kennedy won the popular vote in 1960 by 0.2 percentage points.
In 2000, then-VP Al Gore led George W. Bush by eight percentage points right before their first debate, in October, according to Gallup’s records. The first three days after the event, Gallup polls showed the race tied.