Nearly 12 years ago Centre College hosted the vice presidential debate between Joe Lieberman and Dick Cheney. Speaking of the event, former CBS Evening News host Dan Rather proclaimed: "Centre College held the finest vice presidential debate ever held." This October we at Centre will be honored once again to host the one and only vice presidential debate of the 2012 campaign season. Now is a good time to consider the effect that this debate, and the other three debates between President Obama and Gov. Romney, might have on this year's election.
For starters, over the last 50 years debates have often become the focus of how a campaign is remembered and interpreted. It is hard to separate the 1960 campaign from the image of a youthful, confident John Kennedy debating a disheveled, perspiring Richard Nixon. Gerald Ford's debate claim that "there is no Soviet domination of Eastern Europe" surely didn't help matters in his unsuccessful bid for re-election in 1976. Ronald Reagan masterfully used the debate format to his advantage, giving us such memorable political phrases as "Are you better off now than you were four years ago?" and "I am not going to exploit, for political purposes, my opponent's youth and inexperience." Candidates don't even have to say anything to make a memorable impression and affect the campaign narrative. For example, do we even need to mention Al Gore's audible sighs and distracting facial expressions during the first 2000 debate?
There are good reasons that debates have become such an important part of the modern presidential campaign. They are the only part of the campaign where the voters have a chance to see the two (and occasionally three) candidates in the same place at the same time, answering the same questions and responding to each other's arguments in real time. As a result, the three presidential debates (and one vice presidential debate) are the most-viewed events of the entire campaign. More than 50 million Americans watched the 2008 debates between Barack Obama and John McCain. That's more than 1 out of every 5 adult Americans.
So what effect do presidential debates have on the campaign and, most importantly, the final result of the election? Political science research offers several insights.
First, through the questions that the moderators ask and the answers that the candidates give, debates can often help determine which issues will be discussed and set the "tone" for the last month of a campaign. For example, in the third and final 2008 presidential debate, John McCain said, "I would like to mention that a couple of days ago Senator Obama was out in Ohio and he had an encounter with a guy who's a plumber, his name is Joe Wurzelbacher." Within 24 hours "Joe the Plumber" was a household name, a symbol of middle-class Americans everywhere, and the newest addition to the American political lexicon. As a result, Joe the Plumber was a permanent rhetorical fixture during the last three weeks of the campaign, as both Obama and McCain sought to convince Americans that their particular economic plan would be of most benefit to "people like Joe."
Second, debates are significant because they provide information to voters. Candidates are able to share their backgrounds, qualifications, and policy views directly with the American people. Research studies have shown that many voters pay attention. The results of one study suggest that viewers were about 15 percent more likely to be able to answer specific questions about the policy stands and personal characteristics of the candidates after watching the third presidential debate in 2004 between George W. Bush and John Kerry.
Of course, what we really want to know is the extent to which debates can affect the ultimate outcome of presidential elections. After all, the media often report on debates as if the fate of the election, and ultimately the entire planet earth, hinge upon every particular phrase and gesture that the candidates make during the 90 minutes of each of the four debates.
The traditional view among political scientists, however, is that voters are rather predictable. A classic study published in 1960 showed that most people simply vote along party lines. Indeed, in 2008 more than 85 percent of Democrats voted for Sen. Obama and virtually the same proportion of Republicans voted for Senator McCain. It's not surprising, then, that research studies have also shown that many debate viewers are often strong partisans who are simply cheering for their favored candidate, much the same as they would cheer for a favorite football team during the Super Bowl. For these voters, the presidential candidates are simply "preaching to the choir" and debates are rarely persuasive in terms of affecting their ultimate vote choice.
More recent studies, however, have begun to show a more nuanced view of the effect of debates on voter opinions. A 2003 study, for example, showed that while many 2000 debate viewers were indeed strong partisans who didn't come close to changing their minds about who to support, there were three specific groups whom were much more open to persuasion: 1) Independent voters (specifically those who are "pure" Independents that don't lean toward one party or the other), 2) mismatched partisans (in other words, Republicans who were supporting Gore or Democrats who were supporting Bush), and 3) undecided voters. Collectively, surveys have suggested that these three groups can make up anywhere from 20 to 30 percent of the population a month before any given election -- a substantial number.
Another 2007 study suggested that political knowledge makes a difference. Those who know a lot about politics are fairly confident about their opinions and don't often change their minds as a result of watching debates. Those with low or moderate levels of political knowledge (a surprisingly large segment of the population), however, are more likely to be open to persuasion from debate rhetoric from the candidates, and update their opinions of the candidates as a result of watching presidential debates. (So as not to overstate this effect, however, it should also be remembered that even though those with lower levels of political knowledge are more open to persuasion from political debates, they're also ultimately less likely to turn out to vote than those with higher levels of political knowledge.)
Now in terms of determining the ultimate outcome of the election, political science research has persuasively demonstrated that campaign events, including debates, definitely matter. But they matter within the context of other more fundamental contextual factors like incumbency, international conflict, and prevailing economic conditions. In other words, even the best debate performance in the world would likely not save an incumbent president in the middle of an unpopular war and a deep economic recession. Conversely, an incumbent president during a time of relative peace and prosperity would very likely coast to re-election despite a weak debate showing.
So can we disentangle the effect of debates from the effect of these wider contextual forces? A number of studies have attempted to do just that, isolating the independent effect of debates on the final outcome of presidential elections, controlling for other factors like incumbency, war, and the economy. Collectively, these studies suggest that the cumulative effect of debate performances can indeed "move the needle" on the final vote totals for the candidates by somewhere between 1 and 3 percent. While this might not seem like much, it can be decisive in close elections. And unless economic or international conditions substantially change between now and November, the 2012 election is shaping up to be one of the closest and most polarized in modern American history. The final vote tally may very well result in a razor-thin margin of victory for either candidate. In that case, what happens at Centre College this coming October may very well have important and far-reaching consequences.
Note: a previous version of this article appeared in the spring issue of Centre's alumni magazine CentrePiece.