Throwback Thursday: Do Debates Really Matter?

With the first Democratic debate fresh in everyone’s minds, we’re jumping back to our September/October 2012 issue with John Sides’ look at whether these contests are actually relevant to election results or mere self-sustaining political media fluff.

Sides goes past presidential polls and dives into the research: Does anyone actually make decisions based on debate outcomes? The answer is no, but that doesn’t mean they’re completely pointless. Sides writes:

Why are presidential debates so often inconsequential? After all, many voters do pay attention. Debates routinely attract the largest audience of any televised campaign event. And voters do learn new information, according to several academic studies. But this new information is not likely to change many minds. The debates occur late in the campaign, long after the vast majority of voters have arrived at a decision. Moreover, the debates tend to attract viewers who have an abiding interest in politics and are mostly party loyalists. Instead of the debates affecting who they will vote for, their party loyalty affects who they believe won the debates. For example, in a CNN poll after one of the 2008 debates, 85 percent of Democrats thought that Obama had won, but only 16 percent of Republicans agreed.

You can read the full article right here.

Matt Connolly

Matt Connolly is digital managing editor of the Washington Monthly.