Mark Mellman: The most important moment in history?

Mark Mellman: The most important moment in history?
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We’re practically raised to believe that debates impact election results in big ways.

Millions watch, candidates spend countless hours preparing, media can’t stop talking, and writing, about them. 

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And, after all, we’re taught debates are the way we should be making voting decisions. 

They’ve just got to be game changers.

But they’re not.

After the first debate, I noted that Sen. Kamala HarrisKamala Devi HarrisClinton attacks on Gabbard become flashpoint in presidential race Poll: Biden holds 10-point lead nationally over Warren Trump declines to participate in Weather Channel 2020 climate change special MORE’s (D-Calif.) vote share  in the polling averages jumped about 8 points, while former Vice President Joe BidenJoe BidenTrump says he doesn't want NYT in the White House Warren to protest with striking Chicago teachers Schiff punches back after GOP censure resolution fails MORE’s fell by around 6 points.

However, within weeks of that sugar high, Harris’s support returned to just above her previous level. 

Since then, detecting debate impact has required a microscope.

The biggest movements after the second debate were a 2-point pickup for Sen. Elizabeth WarrenElizabeth Ann WarrenWarren to protest with striking Chicago teachers Overnight Health Care — Presented by Partnership for America's Health Care Future — Four companies reach 0M settlement in opioid lawsuit | Deal opens door to larger settlements | House panel to consider vaping tax | Drug pricing markup tomorrow On The Money: Trump dismisses 'phony Emoluments Clause' after Doral criticism | Senate Dems signal support for domestic spending package | House panel to consider vaping tax MORE (D-Mass.) and a 3-point decline for Harris. Others saw 0- or 1-point shifts in support, on average.

Results after the third debate were similarly resistant to debate bumps. We don’t yet have as many post-debate polls, but IPSOS and FiveThirtyEight  collaborated on a large before and after survey that found the biggest vote movement was again for Warren, who again rose by just over 2 points. 

No other candidate generated a boost of even that small magnitude.

Similarly, the number of voters considering each of the candidates barely budged. Warren had the biggest gain here too, but it was only 2.4 percentage points. 

All-in-all, there’s less game-changing than we might expect.

Why?

First, most primary voters aren’t watching the debates. IPSOS’s data suggests that nearly 6 in 10 Democratic primary voters did not watch any of the debate, and only 15 percent stuck through all three hours.

ABC says 14 million people tuned in. That’s less than half the number that voted in the 2016  primary between former Secretary of State Hillary ClintonHillary Diane Rodham ClintonSanders: 'Outrageous' to suggest Gabbard 'is a foreign asset' Clinton attacks on Gabbard become flashpoint in presidential race Saagar Enjeti: Clinton remarks on Gabbard 'shows just how deep the rot in our system goes' MORE and Sen. Bernie SandersBernie SandersWarren to protest with striking Chicago teachers Sanders: 'Outrageous' to suggest Gabbard 'is a foreign asset' Democratic strategist: Sanders seeking distance from Warren could 'backfire' MORE (I-Vt.).

Not surprisingly, there are some real differences between those who watched and those who didn’t. 

Former Rep. Beto O’Rourke’s (D-Texas) net favorables (percent favorable minus percent unfavorable) rose a striking 15 points among viewers, but didn’t move at all among those who failed to tune in. 

Sens. Cory BookerCory Anthony BookerPoll: Biden holds 10-point lead nationally over Warren Trump declines to participate in Weather Channel 2020 climate change special Bennet: Warren 'not being honest about' her 'Medicare for All' plan MORE (D-N.J.), and Amy KlobucharAmy Jean KlobucharPoll: Biden holds 10-point lead nationally over Warren Robert Reich sees Democratic race as Warren, Sanders and Biden: 'Everyone else is irrelevant' Democrats lead Trump by wide margins in Minnesota MORE (D-Minn.) and Mayor Pete ButtigiegPeter (Pete) Paul ButtigiegSanders: 'Outrageous' to suggest Gabbard 'is a foreign asset' Hillicon Valley: Facebook removes Russian, Iranian accounts trying to interfere in 2020 | Zuckerberg on public relations blitz | Uncertainty over Huawei ban one month out Clinton attacks on Gabbard become flashpoint in presidential race MORE of South Bend, Ind., would also be doing meaningfully better if every Democratic primary voter had watched the exchanges.

Former HUD Secretary Julián Castro, by contrast, seems fortunate so many missed seeing him. His net favorables declined by a whopping 23 points among watchers, but didn’t move at all with those who missed his attack on Biden.

Second, as we know from study after study, in field after field, changing people’s minds is hard. Most people, most of the time, look at evidence and find their preexisting perceptions reinforced, not their minds changed.

The fact that the exchanges were mostly positive may further lessen their impact. Decades of research tells us negative information is processed more quickly and more deeply than positive information.

The debate was hardly a love fest. But the relative absence of hard-hitting attacks may make it harder to change minds, though as Castro learned, attacks can also backfire badly. 

Fourth, with so many candidates, each gets relatively little exposure. In the course of a seemingly endless three-hour debate, only Biden and Warren got more than 15 minutes of speaking time. The rest held the mic, and the camera, even less.

Voters in the early states will get lots more direct exposure to the candidates through other mechanisms.

Speaking of three hours, when exposed to so much, it’s hard for folks to remember who exactly said what.

Harris got kudos from pundits for her opening message to Donald TrumpDonald John TrumpTrump says he doesn't want NYT in the White House Veterans group backs lawsuits to halt Trump's use of military funding for border wall Schiff punches back after GOP censure resolution fails MORE, but three hours later, how many people had the slightest recollection of it?

None of this is to say that debates don’t have a cumulative impact or that there can’t be a game-changing moment.

But we should stop approaching each one as if it’s the decisive event of the primary contest.  

Mellman is president of The Mellman Group and has helped elect 30 U.S. senators, 12 governors and dozens of House members. Mellman served as pollster to Senate Democratic leaders for over 20 years and as president of the American Association of Political Consultants.