Con: Debates make little difference to election

By Dianna Wray - DWRAY@VICAD.COM
Oct. 21, 2012 at 5:21 a.m.
Updated Oct. 22, 2012 at 5:22 a.m.

The presidential debates do not have an impact on the outcome of the election.

Although the debates can be entertaining to watch, viewers don't change their minds based on the outcomes of the debates, said B. Dan Wood, a professor of political science and the director of the American politics program at Texas A&M University.

"The political science research shows pretty clearly that the debates themselves have little, if any, impact on people's voting behavior," Wood said. "People believe what they want to believe about who won and who lost, with participants virtually always thinking that their candidate won and that the other candidate lost."

While some evidence suggests the media commentary on the debates can have a small impact on people's views of the candidates, individual performance in the actual debates does not seem to have a significant impact.

David Pfeffer, of Victoria, agreed most people have their minds made up long before the candidates start sparring on live television.

"I think it might matter if one of the candidates did really badly, but it would have to be a really bad loss," Pfeffer said.

Gaylon Jones, of Victoria, echoed Pfeffer's sentiments. While Jones acknowledged that an impressive performance could potentially win a candidate votes, he said, most people are already inclined to agree with the candidate and party that most resembles their views.

"It's like a competition, but people will lean toward the one who seems to see things the way they do," Jones said.

Wood has been watching the presidential debates since the first televised debate between Kennedy and Nixon in 1960. Back then, those who watched the debate believed Kennedy beat his competitor while those who listened to the debate on the radio believed Nixon had bested Kennedy. Studies say presidential debates won't change the outcome of the election, but, despite media commentary declaring that Romney beat Obama in the first debate, it isn't clear who the winner is when you stand back and listen to the debate.

In the second debate, media commentary declared Obama the winner, but Wood said that, again, it isn't clear who the winner is if you listen to the debate itself.

"I watched the first televised debate in 1960. We now have color television, the Internet and social media for an almost instantaneous feedback from the bottom up," he said. Wood pointed to Kennedy's dominance on television and Nixon's excellence in radio as proof of the debate's impact. "This shows the importance of body language and visual impressions. Those factors seem to still be a factor as people make their evaluations of the candidates."

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