Earth & Conservation

Do Presidential Debates Sway Voters?

While some think debates are must watch events, many believe they simply reinforce formed opinions. So how important are political debates?

With the first presidential debate between Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump now in the rear-view mirror, pundits and analysts will busy themselves declaring a winner.

But as Jules Suzdaltsev explains in today's Seeker Daily report, history suggests that presidential debates don't have much of an influence on presidential elections.

In one particularly ambitious study, researchers looked at every available poll from 1952 through 2008 to assess the ultimate impact of debate performances. Only one candidate in all that time seemed to suffer significantly in the polls from a poor debate showing -- Jimmy Carter in 1976. Ironically, he went on to win the election that year.

In fact, multiple studies of polling from before and after general election debates show that they trigger little or no change in the opinions of voters -- at least as gauged by election results. Debates do, however, tend to nudge the polls in the days immediately following. Researchers suggest that this shift actually has less to do with policy positions and more to do with how candidates come off to voters generally.

RELATED: What Do Millennial Republicans Think of Donald Trump?

Probably the most famous instance of this came in the very first televised presidential debate, in 1960, between Richard Nixon and John. F. Kennedy. Unaccustomed to telegenic concerns, Nixon looked conspicuously nervous and sweaty under the lights, while Kennedy appeared confident and sincere. TV would prove to be a game changer.

This is particularly true in modern debates, after which various news outlets analyze the performances, often in accordance to their own political biases. Studies show that an overwhelming majority of viewers will tend to side with whichever media outlet they're tuned into.

Political scientists have concluded that, in general, debates tend to attract politically minded viewers who have already made up their minds about the election. That's the conventional wisdom, anyway. But if the 2016 election season has taught us anything, it's that this year's contest is not bound by tradition.

-- Glenn McDonald

Learn More:

NPR: Presidential Debates Can Be Great Theater, But How Much Do They Matter?

The Washington Post: Do Presidential Debates Usually Matter? Political Scientists Say No

History: The Kennedy-Nixon Debates