In the mythology of the modern presidential campaign, nothing looms larger than the debates. Elections are already compared to military conflicts, and three times every four years, Americans watch the two candidates battle it out onstage. This year is no different, and a chorus of political analysts is gearing up to argue that the debates will decide the election. But history suggests that these events won’t be as influential as the pundits or TV ratings suggest. In fact, in the past 50 years, they have not flipped the outcome of a single presidential election.
Consider the face-offs between John F. Kennedy and Richard Nixon in 1960. According to campaign lore, television viewers were swayed by Kennedy’s strong performances, which allayed concerns about his inexperience. Yet Kennedy wound up winning by less than one-quarter of one percent, even though the single Gallup poll conducted prior to the debates showed Nixon up merely a single percentage point. Clearly 1960 was close and the debates might have been a factor, but it is difficult to argue that they were decisive. The debates supposedly put Reagan over the top in 1980, but he had already taken enough of a lead to win. His gains were likely the result of Reagan voters who briefly switched to “undecided” following the Democratic Convention and were already returning to the Gipper.
For every example of the debates aiding a candidate, there is an example of a debate failing to provide the boost one might have expected. In 1976, Ford was losing by double digits prior to his ludicrous assertion that there was “no Soviet domination of Eastern Europe.” But he steadily gained and wound up finishing in a tight two-point race. In 1988, Michael Dukakis gave an emotionless response to a hypothetical question about the brutal rape of his wife. Even so, George H.W. Bush, already leading, made only negligible gains. Clinton outdebated Bush and Bob Dole, but the election results were closer than the pre-debate polls.
Why haven’t the debates had a greater impact? It appears that most voters make up their minds before early October, usually the onset of debate season. In this environment, debates are more likely to reinforce existing perceptions rather than shake up the race. Presidential elections may be nearly as expensive as small wars these days, but the real battlefield is not the debate stage.
For more election coverage, check out Nate Cohn’s blog, Electionate.
This article appeared in the October 4, 2012 issue of the magazine.