It’s high noon in the general election and that means debates. This is the make or break moment when a gaffe can rob candidates of their last best hope for victory.
Well, not quite. The status we give to debates in the electoral process doesn’t exactly live up to the evidence. Turns out the effects of the debates are largely a product of our own myth making.
John Sides’ has an excellent piece in the Washington Monthly on the impact of presidential debates. He notes that “The small or nonexistent movement in voters’ preferences is evident when comparing the polls before and after each debate or during the debate season as a whole. Political lore often glosses over or even ignores the polling data.”
So knowing the trajectory of a race pre debate can tell us a good deal about the trajectory post-debate. The actual debate itself doesn’t seem to matter all that much.
Sides offers a nice and succinct list of those moments that in the mirror looked like they had a huge impact on the outcome of a race. But the reality at the time is quite different. Debates are rarely game changers. That doesn’t mean they cannot have an impact, particularly in a close race. But even then the impact may be slight. Changes in polling numbers are the product of many factors.
I suspect that those moments we recall vividly from years past are mental cues that provide reminders of the ultimate outcome. Ford’s misstatement about Soviet domination in 1976 or Reagan’s “There you go again” moment in 1980 or Al Gore’s heavy sighs in 2000 provide us with a way of remembering complex electoral cycles. But rarely are such moments determinative.
It’s worth noting that Sides bases his article on presidential debates though I suspect his conclusions can apply to other levels, particularly in high-profile races. If Elizabeth Warren solidifies her lead in the polls after Thursday night, it is not likely to be because of Thursday night. And if Brown pulls ahead, his debate performance may be just one in a series of factors that impact the race.
Massachusetts has a rich history here befitting our state’s preoccupation with politics. The Dukakis-King debates in 1978 and 1982 were heated affairs that offered an excellent glimpse into the divisions, often personal, that existed within the state’s Democratic party. But those were pre primary debates.
Memories have often been made during general election debates in the Commonwealth–Scott Brown noting that the Senate seat belonged to the citizens was only the most recent– but it’s difficult to suggest that any one debate performance fundamentally changed the contours of a race.
Despite all of that, we’ll watch, tweet, & analyze. Elections offer citizens choices and a bit of political theater. To prepare properly, I’ve given some thought to all of the great debate moments over the years and I’ve unanimously chosen this as the greatest: