A Few Quick Thoughts About the Presidential Debate

4 10 2012

I don’t normally comment on electoral politics, since it isn’t my main area of expertise. However, I just want to put Obama’s performance in last night’s debate into some historical context. The general consensus is that his debating skills have deteriorated since 2008. There is, however, a fairly large body of historical research to show that presidential debates simply don’t have much on an impact on voter intentions.  Consider the data in this chart, which was recently posted on the excellent MonkeyCage political science blog.

U.S. presidential debates rarely change a candidate’s polling figures by more than the margin of error. With the possible exception of 2000, no debate since 1988 has had more than a trivial impact on voting intentions. (Support for Gore fell during the debate period in 2000, but there were other things going on in the campaign and the economy that may explain it_.

The only presidential debates that have really mattered were 1960, when the election was a very close and Kennedy’s superior performance helped to swing many female voters, and 1976, when Gerald Ford discredited himself by stating that the Soviet Union did not dominate the countries of Eastern Europe, a misstatement that made him seem ill-informed about foreign affairs.

The debates have produced a few memorable moments. Many readers will remember the 1988 debate when Michael Dukakis was flustered by a (really stupid) question by CNN anchorman Bernard Shaw.  Shaw asked Dukakis, who opposed capital punishment, whether he would continue to be against it if his own wife was raped and murdered. Dukakis, who obviously hadn’t prepared for this question, gave a poor response.

However, the  whole incident had little impact on how folks actually voted. The vice-presidential debates, which have been even more entertaining, have had an even smaller impact on voting intentions.