Five Facts on the Impact of Presidential Debates

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Amid the canceling of the second presidential debate, here are five facts on the impact of debates on the outcome of presidential races.

  1. A Gallup Poll analysis found that presidential debates are “rarely game changers.”

The analysis found that in six of nine debate seasons between 1960 and 2004 the candidates who were leading before the debates eventually won the election. While individual debates can give candidates a significant short-term polling bounce – Mitt Romney, for example, erasing President Barak Obama’s nine-point lead and tying him at 46% in the national poll average after their first debate – polling before and after debate season usually stays within a slim margin. The two exceptions were in 1976, when Jimmy Carter lost 10 points in national polls throughout the debate season against incumbent Gerald Ford but eventually won the election, and in 2000 when George W. Bush came back from 8 points behind Al Gore before the first debate to lead by 4 points.

  1. Historians consider the first debate in 1960 between John F. Kennedy and Richard M. Nixon to have played a pivotal role in Kennedy’s subsequent victory.

The first-ever televised debate occurred in the midst of a tight race, with a pre-debate Gallup poll putting Nixon at 47% and Kennedy at 46%. Presidential historian Robert Gilbert noted that during the debate the young Kennedy "looked to be radiating health", whereas Nixon, who had recently suffered a knee injury, “appeared pale and a bit listless.” After the first debate Kennedy’s internal pollster placed him at 48% and Nixon at 43%. Kennedy sustained his lead throughout debate season and went on to win the election.

  1. The first presidential debate between George Bush and Al Gore led to a significant and sustainable polling bounce for Bush.

Before their first debate, sitting Vice President Gore had an 8-point lead in the polls at 47%, with Bush at 39%, according to a Gallup poll. Many viewers perceived Bush as confident and likeable during the first debate -- contrasted with Gore’s loud sighs, reactions, and exaggerations -- resulting in a poll bounce, tying him with Gore at 43% in a Gallup poll. Although the polls fluctuated throughout the debate season, after the third debate Bush led by 4 points at 46% and Gore at 42% and he went on to win the 2000 election.

  1. Most voters think presidential debates are helpful in making their voting decisions.

Post-election surveys conducted by the Pew Research Center from 1988 to 2016 found that the majority of voters think debates aid their decision making. On average 60% of voters found debates helpful since 1988 and 23.5% have said they were very helpful.

  1. Presidential debates tend to compel a small number of undecided voters to make up their minds.

Although the majority of voters say debates are helpful, only 10% of undecided voters in 2016 made up their minds during or right after presidential debates according to a Pew Research Center poll. By comparison 11% of voters said they made up their minds weeks or days before Election Day, 22% during or right after party conventions, and 42% before the conventions.

No Labels is an organization of Democrats, Republicans, and independents working to bring American leaders together to solve problems.



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