MINNEAPOLIS (WCCO) — It’s a tradition that started with Kennedy/Nixon back in 1960 — the televised presidential debate. The campaigns, press and the voters make a big deal of it. But, can debates change a person’s mind? Good Question.
“Based on past elections, few minds get changed even when people are decisive as to ‘who wins’ the debate,” says Robert Erikson, professor of political science at Columbia University and co-author of “The Timeline of Presidential Elections.” “But this election has always shown itself to be different, so there is more uncertainty than usual.”
Researchers who’ve looked at pre- and post-debate polling generally find little impact. When Gallup reviewed election trends during the debate season, it found, “with the exception of 2000, there has been little change in the basic structure of these elections from the period immediately before the first debate to the period immediately following the final debate.”
For example, in a 1988 debate, the polls moved one percentage point after Gov. Michael Dukakis made what was considered a gaffe in his response to a question about the death penalty.
Experts say debates usually have little impact on voter decisions because they happen after most voters have already decided. In addition, those voters are usually historically the people who tune into the debates.
“Generally speaking, debates don’t change voters’ minds, but every once in a while, there’s a very important debate. 1960, Kennedy/Nixon, 2000 Gore/Bush,” says Paul Goren, a professor of political science at the University of Minnesota. “I think the 2016 Trump/Clinton is another one of those occasions.”
Goren says these debates could have an impact because there are higher numbers of people watching. This election also has a higher number of undecided voters so far.
“The early polling suggests there are more undecided voters than we’ve seen in quite some time, and that’s what might make tonight’s debate interesting and potentially a turning point in the election,” says Goren.