Tens of millions of Americans will tune in Wednesday night to watch US President Barack Obama debate Republican challenger Mitt Romney in what is arguably the country’s most anticipated political event so far this year.
But despite the excitement pulsating through the US media and the political punditry, a half-century worth of data indicates these showdowns have little to no effect on the outcome of American presidential elections.
“People are interested in the debates, watch the debates, and might have a sense of who wins and loses,” said Robert Erikson, a political science professor at Columbia University in New York City. “But they largely serve to reinforce people’s preferences. People don’t change their minds so much.”
US presidential debates over the decades have produced a series of memorable gaffes, flubs, and zingers.
At the height of the Cold War, for example, President Gerald Ford said in a 1976 debate with challenger Jimmy Carter that “there is no Soviet domination of Eastern Europe,” prompting much subsequent cackling from the chattering classes.
In their new book, Tides of Consent, Erikson and co-author Christopher Wlezien analyze polling data from presidential elections from 1952 to 2008. What they find is that these debates—gaffes and all—do not appear to have impacted the results of the election in any significant way.
“The evidence is pretty thin,” said Wlezien, a political scientist at Temple University in Philadelphia.
In the case of Ford and the Eastern Europe blunder, the polling trend was counterintuitive. Carter, who was leading at the time, saw his numbers drop precipitously after the debate, though he went on to win the election anyway, Wlezien said.
Obama enters Wednesday’s debate in Denver, Colorado, leading Romney by more than 3 percent, according to RealClearPolitics, which averages national polls. The debate, for which both candidates have been engaged in intense preparations, will focus on domestic policy. They are set to spar over foreign policy in subsequent debates on October 16 and 22.
Peter Fenn, a longtime Democratic consultant, conceded that the debates may do little to persuade voters to change their minds. But they can play a role in close elections, he said.
“In situations where someone needs to alter the basic dynamics of a close race, they can have an impact,” Fenn said. “Obviously, if you have 60 million to 70 million people watching these debates, that’s a sizeable chunk of the electorate.”
The highly polarized state of American politics and the wobbly US economy could also boost the significance of these debates, Fenn added.
“People are pretty upset and pretty nervous and concerned about the economy,” he said.