One down, three more debates to go
Tuesday began a nearly month-long process of events that will go back-and-forth, with leads changing frequently and supporters hanging on the edge of their seats to see if their favored side will win. I speak, of course, of the Major League Baseball playoffs.
But Tuesday also featured another highly anticipated event — the first presidential debate. But despite all of the media hype surrounding it, it is unlikely that the debates — including the two more scheduled between Joe Biden and Donald Trump and the vice presidential debate — will have much, if any affect, on who wins the election.
The debates have not changed presidential elections much historically. They are especially unlikely to do so in a year marked by a stable polling lead for Biden and a paucity of voters indicating they are undecided or favoring a third party candidate.
Coverage of Tuesday’s debate focused on the personal attacks and frequent disruptions, which “overshadowed” any substance. Some summarized it as “chaotic,” “uncontrollable” and unlike anything seen in modern American politics.
This framing indicates that the first presidential debate might be well-remembered years from now, though as a cautionary example. But one key question for today is whether the debate changed the minds of any voters and did so in a decisive manner. A review of the historical evidence indicates that the answer is no.
Think back to 2016. Both pundits and voters thought that Hillary Clinton won all three debates. This did her as much good as her victory in the popular vote.
Or you can recall 2012. Mitt Romney was nearly unanimously regarded as the winner of the first debate against Barack Obama. This tightened the presidential race. Yet with stronger performances in the second and third debates and a broader focus on the economic stakes of the race, the presidential race returned to a slight but clear advantage for Obama.
These patterns are common. Debates may have temporary effects on the poll standing of the two candidates, but the race tends to return to the equilibrium present before the debates. As a result, the impact of debates on the final results of presidential elections tends to be small.
One can identify cases where debate wins led to a victory for a specific candidate. But those cases — 1960, 1976 and 2000 — are in extremely close races. Al Gore’s sighing may have cost him the 537 votes by which he officially lost in Florida in 2000. But in a race that close, any number of things could have swayed the outcome.
2020 is not shaping up at this moment to be a close presidential election. Polling averages show that Joe Biden has a solid and stable lead in both the national and swing state polls. The FiveThirtyEight.com polling average shows Biden leading Trump 50.2 percent to 42.2 percent. This 7-point lead has been consistent all month of September, with only moving up and down a few tenths of a point.
The race has tightened slightly — but only slightly — since the summer when Biden led by 9 points. But the basic state of the race has not changed since the protests over the killing George Floyd in June. The race has remained stable with a solid lead for Biden through the summer, the return to school for the country’s students, the reopening of many states, the political conventions of both parties and the death of Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, followed by the nomination of Amy Coney Barrett to replace her. The debates may change the polls, but the stability of the race suggests that they are not likely to do so.
One key reason for the stability of the race this year is that a larger share of voters appear to have made up their minds already. The polling results from the two weeks before the first debate in 2016, which included the Libertarian Party candidate Gary Johnson and Green Party nominee Jill Stein, showed that the average percentage of voters who said they were voting for a third party candidate or who were undecided was just under 17 percent. This year, that number is 10 percent less; only 6.7 percent of 2020 voters say they are undecided or voting third party in 2016.
This means there are fewer voters that either candidate could pick up, even if a large share of undecided voters uses the debates as a means to determine for whom to vote. While “game changing” effects from this year’s debates are certainly possible, they are unlikely. The vast majority of voters made up their minds long ago; nothing has changed the race in the second half of 2020 as a result.
Even though presidential debates do little to move the horse race standings between the two candidates, they play an important and vital role in our democracy. They provide an opportunity for the two candidates to address the country directly, and that the networks forego most of their advertising revenue for the night, signaling the importance of the events.
The debates provide an opportunity for candidates to make public promises to voters about what they will do in office, providing voters information directly from the candidates about not only their issue stands, but also their priorities. Thus, our system of presidential debates is a valuable tool of American democracy, even if it will do little to change the outcome of the election.
Brian Arbour is an associate professor of Political Science at John Jay College, CUNY.