Voter’s opinions rarely swayed by debates

G. Elliott Morris

Everybody wants their presidential candidate to win in a landslide, yet voters also like the ebbs and flows of a nail-biter presidential race. That’s exactly what we had a week ago, but current polling tells a different story. On the day of the first presidential debate of 2016, Hillary Clinton was leading Donald Trump nationally by 1.4 percentage points. Now she leads by 3.5 percent. Democrats should be elated by this gain in ground by Secretary Clinton, but I would advise caution. We’ve seen bounces fade in the past, and we’ve also seen debate performances worse than Donald Trump’s.

For example, in the 2012 race between Barack Obama and Mitt Romney, the President was leading in the polls by a little more than 3 percent (sound familiar?). After a frankly horrible first debate against Romney — in which one headline read “Obama Snoozes and Loses” — Obama eventually sunk to a losing margin of -0.7 percentage points. Granted, Romney’s lead only lasted one day, but the race remained within 1 percent until election day.

We did not see this type of comeback. On the day of the first debate in 2000, polls showed Gore in the lead by around 2.5 percent. After a debate in which Gore kept repeating the phrase “lockbox” and sighing — for which he was brutally satirized and criticized — he fell in the polls and within a week Bush had gained a clear lead.

Famously in 1976, Incumbent President Gerald Ford was in a fierce battle for the White House with Georgian peanut farmer (and fantastic businessman) Jimmy Carter. Ford, after a seemingly well-executed answer to a question on the threat of communism, famously said “there is no Soviet domination in eastern Europe and there never will be.” That is a gaffe perhaps bigger than Trump’s lie-defense of his comments on global warming. Why then did President Ford continue to rise in the polls, nearly catching Carter in the end? Is it the case that debates don’t matter? Could Trump continue on to tie the race?

Well, political science seems to have an answer for that. Government professor Christopher Wlezien echoes the sentiment that debates don’t usually have large, lasting effects.

“Debates can matter but the effects tend to be small, as most voters’ preferences already are fairly well developed by that point,” Wleizen said in an email. “Some of the impact of debates that we do observe do not last and even those that do can be canceled out by opposing effects from other debates or events.”

In the cases of 2000 and 2012, the losing candidates were gaining in the polls before they received their debate bounce. This is also the case in most races in which we perceive debate effects. That is to say that maybe presidential debates don’t significantly change the race, as Wlezien states. Perhaps the race is already changing, and the debates are well-timed to appear as causation.

It remains the case, though, that these historic debate performances are perhaps worse than Trump’s cursory, off-the-cuff remarks. Contrarily, there could be something different about Trump that does put him at a disadvantage when it comes to debate effects. Really, we won’t know for (at least) a week or two. If history serves as any indicator, don’t be surprised if Trump regains his footing.

Morris is a government junior from Port Aransas. Follow him on Twitter @gelliottmorris.