Do Debates Even Matter?

PHOTO: People watch the Presidential Debate at the University of Denver on Wednesday, Oct. 3, 2012.Aaron Ontiveroz/AP Photo
People watch the Presidential Debate at the University of Denver on Wednesday, Oct. 3, 2012.

As America argues about who won last night's debate, it's hard not to wonder :"Does this change anything?" Quite a few politicos and statisticians seems to be convinced of the same answer: "Not really."

"Only twice have debates appeared to shift the election's outcome," Chief Washington Correspondent at CNBC John Harwood wrote in a column for the New York Times this week, referring to the first televised debate between John F. Kennedy and Richard Nixon and the 2000 race between George W. Bush and Al Gore.

Gallup came to a similar conclusion in 2008, writing that "election polling trends since the advent of televised presidential debates nearly a half-century ago reveal few instances in which the debates may have had a substantive impact on election outcomes."

But political science professors Robert Erikson and Christopher Wlezien say in their book "The Timeline of Presidential Elections," that it's difficult to say confidently that any recent elections at all were decided by the debates. After examining a larger scope of polls than Gallup, the pair concluded that not one election victory could be clearly attributed to debate performance.

Sam Wang, a neuroscientist at Princeton (no big deal), points out that debates shouldn't be totally discounted because they do matter in the broader scope of the political landscape. They can affect who ends up in Congress.

"The Presidential outcome is only one measure of the debates' effectiveness. As I have shown, downticket Senate races this year have tracked Presidential preference closely. The same is likely to be true of House races. These linkages are driven in part by partisan voter intensity. If one side's intensity fades or surges, it will affect races at all levels on the ticket. The Obama-Romney debate may well influence the shape of the Congress that the President will face in January," Wang writes.

As John Sides of Washington Monthly writes:

"What history can tell us is that presidential debates, while part of how the game is played, are rarely what decide the game itself."