The Wheel Debates: Do the Presidential Debates Affect the Outcome of the Election?

This month’s debate was written by Barkley Forum members Goizueta Business School junior Harry Stone and College sophomore Tiffany Haas. 

Debates Have Little Impact:

Despite the high entertainment value and ample material for Saturday Night Live skits, the presidential debates this election cycle were unproductive, unimportant and should not have occurred.  

The purpose of a debate between candidates for public office is to allow voters to compare their options side-by-side while they discuss policy issues and solutions. In this election cycle, the presidential debates often spiraled into ad hominem attacks and discussion of controversies that, while important, weren’t new and therefore would not have swayed voters. When policy issues were discussed, they were often one-sided or riddled with dubious “facts.”  

In addition, the debates had little impact on an increasingly polarized public. Political scientists (including Emory’s own professor, Alan Abramowitz) have noticed a decrease in truly independent voters, as changing demographics, culture and ideology impact the American public and its political views. This means nearly everyone has some sort of partisan leaning. Particularly in this election, partisan leaning has flourished as both candidates have extremely low favorability ratings: Trump received a 60.4 percent unfavorability rating and Clinton a 52.9 percent unfavorability rating, indicating that voters are more likely to vote to prevent the other party’s candidate from winning. This reveals that presidential debates were unlikely to help any undecided voters make up their minds. The majority of the debates’ viewership were politically minded voters, who watched the debates to mock and ridicule the opponent of their candidate of choice.

Furthermore, shifts in the polls are not a result of the debates unmasking previously unknown issues. Rather, the 24-hour news cycle and constant election coverage ensures that any controversies surrounding the candidates are immediately published and scrutinized. Confronting Trump about his comments toward women or Clinton regarding her email scandal weren’t necessary on a debate stage when both controversies could’ve been addressed by their respective campaign teams.

Overall, this election cycle’s presidential debates provided ample material for absurd bingo games or a mid-week comedic relief, but didn’t provide the electorate with their intended purpose: information to cast an informed vote for the next leader of the United States.  

Tiffany Haas is a College sophomore from Plymouth, Minnesota.

Debates Influence the Outcome of the Election:

Changes in the political climate and the ever-growing presence of digital media have drastically expanded the value of presidential debates with regard to election outcomes. This year’s election demonstrates the great degree to which debate outcomes can affect the election. According to RealClearPolitics, past elections generally indicated that debates rarely affected election results other than presenting the illusion of changes in the polls. However, according to Julian Zelizer, professor of history and public affairs at Princeton University (N.J.), this year’s presidential debates will have a much more lasting effect. Before the first debate, general election polling was fairly close, Clinton was only ahead by about 2.1 points leading up to the first debate. However, now that the three debates have finished, Clinton is ahead of Trump by 5 points. While other ruinous information about Trump’s treatment of women or business practices emerged between the first debate and now, data demonstrates that after each debate, Clinton received a lasting bump in the polls.

The observable impact in the polls is significant for two key reasons. In past elections, people couldn’t stream debates online and social media didn’t provide voters with the ability to watch infinite reruns of the debates. Now, however, the debates reach a much broader audience than their initial viewing due to online streaming. The primary reason jumps in polls immediately after debates were fleeting was the rapid collective amnesia people experienced. Now, the internet forces people to recall the events of the debate, so the jumps in the polls have a lasting effect. This rampant spreading of the events 3in debates also allows voters to gain a clearer representation of who their candidate really is.

Secondly, Zelizer argues that candidates are now taking on more of a celebrity role than in years past. Trump has hosted his own reality TV show and Clinton is a member of a well-established political family; both clash on almost every issue possible, so people are more likely to watch debates than in previous elections. Since both candidates maintain celebrity-like statuses, the debates are crucial in evaluating the candidates’ characters, which are normally manicured by their campaign managers.

Although presidential debates historically had minimal lasting impact on the outcomes of an election, this election demonstrates their increasing importance. As the power of the internet continues to grow, the effect of presidential debates on the election outcomes seems to grow with it.

Harry Stone is a Goizueta Business School junior from Salt Lake City, Utah.