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Zirpoli: Debates don't (usually) decide elections

This column was written and submitted prior to the Monday evening presidential debate. Thus, I had no idea how the two candidates would have performed by the time this was published. My question for this column is this: Does it matter?

Larry Sabato and colleagues, writing for Sabato's Crystal Ball website, took a look at that question and found that while debates might move a candidate up or down in the polls temporarily, they don't usually change the course of an election in the long term.

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John Sides, an associate professor of political science at George Washington University, agrees with Sabato. Writing for The Washington Monthly, Sides found that "history can tell us that presidential debates, while part of how the game is played, are rarely what decide the game itself."

This might be especially true today, as the proportion of voters watching the debates has declined significantly since the first presidential debate in 1960. According to Nielsen ratings of all presidential debates, the percentage of voters watching the debates declined from 60.8 percent in 1960 to 28.6 percent in 2012. Of course, the debate on Monday night probably saw significantly stronger numbers, given the entertainment value predicted with GOP nominee Donald Trump debating the first female candidate for president, Secretary Hillary Clinton. (Editor's note: The debate ended up being the most watcehd in U.S. history.)

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History also tells us that while polling numbers changed for the perceived "winners" of past debates, they do not usually change the expected outcome of the election. For example, in the 1976 presidential election, Gov. Jimmy Carter beat incumbent President Gerry Ford even though Ford improved his polling numbers by a record 13.8 percentage points after his first debate with Carter. However, Ford was behind Carter by 20 points before the debate, so it did not make a big difference in the outcome of the 1976 election.

According to data reported by Sabato — and removing the 13.8-point poll change after the 1976 debate — the average poll change after the first debate from 1960 to 2012 was plus-3 points for the perceived winner. But, like the polling bounces candidates receive after their conventions, debate bounces tend to fade over time. In this case, timing is everything. If the last debate is one week prior to the election, a strong performance or major mistake by a candidate could make a difference in how people vote. This is what happened when Ronald Reagan and Carter debated one week prior to the election and Reagan did well. Many think it was this debate that made the difference for Reagan winning in 1980.

However, if the debates are finished weeks in advance of the actual election, these events might not make a difference. This year, the last debate is scheduled for Oct. 19, which is three weeks before most voters go to the polls.

The number of debates has not been consistent over the years. In 1960, there were four debates between John F. Kennedy and Richard Nixon. There was only one presidential debate in 1976. Most other years there have been two or three presidential debates and one vice-presidential debate, as is the case this year.

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Regarding the debates, Sabato cites an advantage for both Clinton and Trump heading into these debates. For Clinton, she has more practice participating in one-on-one contests. As noted by Sabato, "Clinton and Bernie Sanders clashed by themselves five times in 2016, and Clinton also faced off against just Obama four times during the 2008 Democratic primary." On the other hand, Trump has always debated with a least four other people on stage. How he handles the one-on-one match up, and with a female candidate, is an interesting element to watch.

The advantage for Trump, according to Sabato, is that he would likely "appear more presidential just by appearing on stage" in a one-on-one debate with Clinton. Others point to Trump's experience as a TV personality as an advantage.

The candidate who "won" on Monday night might keep in mind that Mitt Romney was the perceived winner after his first debate with President Barack Obama in 2012 and he surged in the polls immediately after. But Obama recovered in the second and third debates, and went on to win the election.

As noted by Sides, "In every election there are myriad factors that voters must consider before choosing their candidate, and a debate performance is unlikely to be the first thing on a voter's mind when he or she enters the voting booth."

Of course, nothing about this year's presidential contest has held true to tradition or history. So you might want to forget everything you just read.

Tom Zirpoli writes from Westminster. He is program coordinator of the Human Services Management graduate program at McDaniel College. His column appears Wednesdays. Email him at tzirpoli@mcdaniel.edu.

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