Charles Dharapak/AP
Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney talks with Sen. Rob Portman (R) of Ohio, who has also been his debate practice partner, on his campaign charter plane en route to Denver on Monday.

Presidential debates: Game-changers or time-wasters?

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?

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.

“When we get to Thursday morning, you’ll be saying it’s a brand-new race with 33 days to go,” Mr. Christie said Sunday on CBS’s “Face the Nation."

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.

Mr. Gore came back a little bit prior to the next debate, only to fall back again. The same pattern held for the third debate. Ultimately Mr. Bush prevailed in an election so close it was, in essence, decided by a Supreme Court ruling.

“The debates were less likely to be catalyst events in years when one candidate was a strong front-runner, including 1984, 1988, and 1996,” writes Gallup analyst Lydia Saad.

The reasons for that are fairly obvious, according to George Washington University associate professor of political science John Sides. Presidential candidates tend to be fairly evenly matched in terms of capability, preparation, and political experience. Over a series of debates, neither is likely to be able to dominate the other so thoroughly that undecided or wavering voters will judge them a superior possible president.

Even if polls do move during a debate period, it can be hard to determine whether the debates themselves were the cause of the movement, or whether they were the result of other events, such as overseas crises or economic troubles.

“What history can tell us is that presidential debates, while part of how the game is played, are rarely what decide the game itself,” writes Mr. Sides in an article on debate effects in the Washington Monthly.

But “rarely” isn’t the same as “never."  And it’s possible that 2012 could be an outlier in this historical data set.

First of all, the election is close. It’s close enough so that one stray gaffe might send just enough voters fleeing to the other guy. And the media environment surrounding the debate is different as well. The Twitter-fueled political news cycle is faster and more ferocious than ever, meaning that any perceived victor or loser could find their gain or loss exaggerated by the sheer volume of media hype.

Don’t think so? We’ve got one word for you: “oops." That’s what Texas Gov. Rick Perry said when he fumbled an answer in a GOP primary debate, if you recall. It’s true that wasn’t a general election debate, but if any single moment sealed a candidate’s fate this cycle, that was it. Governor Perry never recovered.

You've read  of  free articles. Subscribe to continue.

Dear Reader,

About a year ago, I happened upon this statement about the Monitor in the Harvard Business Review – under the charming heading of “do things that don’t interest you”:

“Many things that end up” being meaningful, writes social scientist Joseph Grenny, “have come from conference workshops, articles, or online videos that began as a chore and ended with an insight. My work in Kenya, for example, was heavily influenced by a Christian Science Monitor article I had forced myself to read 10 years earlier. Sometimes, we call things ‘boring’ simply because they lie outside the box we are currently in.”

If you were to come up with a punchline to a joke about the Monitor, that would probably be it. We’re seen as being global, fair, insightful, and perhaps a bit too earnest. We’re the bran muffin of journalism.

But you know what? We change lives. And I’m going to argue that we change lives precisely because we force open that too-small box that most human beings think they live in.

The Monitor is a peculiar little publication that’s hard for the world to figure out. We’re run by a church, but we’re not only for church members and we’re not about converting people. We’re known as being fair even as the world becomes as polarized as at any time since the newspaper’s founding in 1908.

We have a mission beyond circulation, we want to bridge divides. We’re about kicking down the door of thought everywhere and saying, “You are bigger and more capable than you realize. And we can prove it.”

If you’re looking for bran muffin journalism, you can subscribe to the Monitor for $15. You’ll get the Monitor Weekly magazine, the Monitor Daily email, and unlimited access to

QR Code to Presidential debates: Game-changers or time-wasters?
Read this article in
QR Code to Subscription page
Start your subscription today