The Year of Consequential Debates

As they did in the Republican primary, the presidential debates this year could be having a bigger effect than they have in elections past.


The evidence is starting to gel that Mitt Romney's resounding win in last week's debate gave his campaign a substantial boost. Nationally, a Pew poll has Romney leading by four points, while Gallup has the Republican leading President Obama by two points. Polls also show Romney drawing within one point in Ohio and three points in Pennsylvania and Michigan, all states where he previously trailed by larger margins.

Yet political science tells us debates don't matter that much in presidential elections: They can make an impression, but they're unlikely to change the outcome. What gives? Is something new happening, or is Romney's debate bounce bound to dissipate?

As a political scientist at George Washington University and blogger at The Monkey Cage, John Sides is a frequent debunker of overblown speculation about the potential effect of supposedly game-changing campaign events. Before last week's debate, he wrote a piece for Washington Monthly under the headline, "Do Presidential Debates Really Matter?" (The answer: "rarely, if ever.") Naturally, he cautions against snap judgments and says we need to see more evidence about whether Romney has gotten a sustained bump from the debate. But he's willing to cautiously concede that something has changed.

"This is a year where we're ultimately going to look back and say debates don't always decide elections, but debates can change a campaign," Sides said. "Strategies change, polls move, coverage changes. Obviously, it feels like -- it is -- a different race than it was beforehand."

A few reasons the debate might indeed have been a game-changer:

1. Debates have mattered a lot in this election. During the tumultuous Republican primary that put Romney on the GOP ticket, the candidates' fortunes seemed to rise and fall almost entirely based on their debate showing. Herman Cain, Rick Santorum, and especially Newt Gingrich were all charismatic debaters with little campaign infrastructure behind them; the free primetime exposure they got in the 20-plus debates boosted them to the top of the polls, and in Gingrich's case, propelled him to a landslide victory in the South Carolina primary. Rick Perry entered the primary as frontrunner, then slid precipitously after a serious of lackluster-to-disastrous debates. Romney performed steadily in debates throughout the process, and extinguished the threat from Gingrich in the post-South Carolina debates.

It's enough to make you wonder if voters -- burned out on spin, TV ads, and the rote pageantry of stump speeches -- are giving more weight to their one opportunity to see the candidates in the unfiltered, unscripted arena a debate provides.

Sides cautioned against comparing a primary to a general election; with partisanship not a factor and the candidates generally less well known, primaries tend to be more fluid. But it's conceivable, he said, that in a more fragmented media environment, a big event like a debate, combined with the massive amount of coverage it generates, has a better chance of breaking through to voters who otherwise ignore the political hubbub of cable, Twitter, and the rest of the political-junkie bubble.

2. Romney won bigger. In post-debate surveys, Romney didn't just win -- he was agreed to be the winner by larger majorities than just about any other candidate in memory. In Gallup's post-debate poll, 72 percent thought Romney won, while just 20 percent gave the debate to Obama; the 52-point margin was the largest ever measured by Gallup, surpassing the 42-point margin by which voters judged Bill Clinton the winner of a 1992 debate. Similarly, a CNN post-debate poll had respondents calling it for Romney, 67-25; in polling going back to 1984, no candidate has been judged the winner by more than 60 percent, and the 42-point margin was equaled only by that 1992 Clinton debate. If Romney won the debate more decisively and unanimously than any candidate has won a debate in the past, it stands to reason he'd benefit from it more.

3. In a close race, everything matters. The political science view espoused by Sides and others isn't that debates don't have an effect -- it's that they rarely have a big enough effect to swing the election on their own. But in a close race, even a small, marginal movement in the polls can change who's winning. Debates may well have swung or contributed to swinging the very close elections of 1960 and 2000, Sides notes.

And this race probably should have been closer to begin with than the large Obama leads that polls were showing before the debate. Based on the state of the economy and Obama's approval rating, the president was a slight favorite, at most, to win a very close election. If he's now tied or within a point or so of Romney, that's in line with the underlying conditions.

"Much as in 2004, the first debate is tightening this race, and probably tightening it to the level where it should be based on the fundamentals," Sides said. And just as the debate was just one day in a long campaign, there are still 28 days -- and two more presidential debates -- for things to change before Election Day.