What is the real impact of presidential debates?

There have been two major presidential debates in the past 30 days, both sparking controversy and conversation across the United States. Eighty million viewers, more than any other televised debate in history, tuned into the first debate to learn the candidates’ proposed policies and differences.

Considering 80 million people watched the debates, was the performance of Trump or Clinton enough to change voters’ minds? Do the debates affect voter decisions? 

Dr. Sharon Vaughan
Dr. Sharon Vaughan

Oklahoma City Community College Political science professor Sharon Vaughan says, “not much.”

“Political science research tells us that debates usually just reinforce the partisan preferences that are already there, so normally they don’t really change that many people’s minds,” Vaughan said. “Research says they’re not much of a factor, they just reinforce what people already thought they knew.”

A 2003 study by William Benoit outlined the effects of televised debates on viewers. The study concluded that “debates can alter perceptions of the candidate’s’ personality, but they do not exert a significant effect on perceptions of the candidate’s’ competence (leadership ability).”

Data from the study also showed that general campaign debates increase viewer knowledge of political issues, and can marginally affect vote preference.

Experts believe many viewers have come to their voting decision by the time of the debates, creating the phenomenon of better-informed viewers with unchanged minds. Political polls and surveys reflect this, with little historical variance in the reception of candidates before and after debates.

One factor that helps shape the perceptions of debates, possibly even more than the debates themselves, is a mighty one: Social media.

A record-breaking 17 million tweets were sent out on the evening of the second presidential debate, highlighting the relationship between social media and debate reception. Post-debate discourse in the news media and on platforms such as Facebook and Twitter influence the ideas of “who won.”

Polls hosted by conservative outlets such as Fox News claim Trump as winner of both debates, while scientifically conducted surveys, such as the CNN/ORC polls, indicate that Clinton was victorious.

A study by Kim Fridkin and other professors from the Arizona State University analyzed the influence of the media regarding who won a debate. Fridkin had several sets of voters watch the debates with and without commentary from cable news channels, and then asked the viewers who thought had “won.” The results showed the commentary included after the debates greatly shaped the decisions of viewers determining who won or lost.

Although the media can influence the general population’s analysis of the debates, voter decisions generally remain unaffected. The debates can provide helpful information to voters, but persuasion is not a major occurrence. A July CBS poll found more than a third of Republicans were unhappy with Trump as their candidate, and a quarter of Democrats were disappointed with Clinton. Though the debates may sway undecided voters,  there is a larger theme of voters remaining uninspired by their choices.

Public Relations major Ashtin Schones was unmotivated by the debates. “I don’t know if I want to vote or not,” Schones said. “I know who I wouldn’t vote for, but I don’t know who I want to vote for.”

When asked who won the debate, Schones said “nobody.”

“I don’t think the debates really change people’s minds, usually you’re going to just go one way or go the other,” she said. “If you were undecided, it might help you choose one or the other, but it’s not going to help anyone switch sides.”

Public relations major Teagan Hawkins had a similar reaction. For me, the debates haven’t affected my decisions.”

Hawkins was raised Republican. He said he has matured and has explored liberal thought. “I really am torn, and to be honest I was originally leaning towards Trump, but with everything that came out about Trump, I don’t know,” he said. “I’m still undecided, because we have someone who doesn’t respect women, and then someone who I believe broke the law. When it comes down to it, I’m picking the better of two evils. I hate the media, and the debates haven’t really helped at all.”

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