Trump and Clinton
Credit: Gage Skidmore and BU Rob13/Wikimedia Commons

The conventional wisdom among statisticians and political scientists on presidential debates is that they don’t seem to matter that much, at least in the modern era. Despite the famous examples of gaffes, zingers and poor performances over the years, debates are something like less predictable political conventions: if one candidate did well, they tend to get a bounce for a few days, but then things slowly return to the statistical norm.

But this one could be different, for a variety of reasons. Donald Trump is a very unusual candidate, and many voters may be waiting to make a final judgment about him based on how he handles himself in such a high-stakes setting. The country has never watched a general election debate in which one of the candidates is a woman, which might create an unpredictable voter reaction as well. Most polls show a comparatively high percentage of voters leaning toward third party candidates for this late in the cycle, and it’s possible that many of them may decide to “come home” to either Clinton or Trump based on this debate.

But from a public opinion standpoint, by far the most unusual thing about this race is how unpopular both of the nominees are. Never before in modern electoral history have both candidates been so unpopular, with both at least 10 points underwater. For some perspective, almost every losing presidential candidate going back three decades had a positive approval rating on the eve of their defeat. For a candidate with a negative ten or fifteen point popularity rating to win the presidency would be unheard of, yet that’s almost certainly what is going to happen.

Which means that a very large number of voters who don’t like either of these candidates will be tuning into the debate in the hope of figuring out which of them they might be able to stomach more (or less):

“I feel like they are both bad choices,” said Melissa Huber, a 39-year-old day-care provider in Oklahoma. “I’m hoping that through the debate one of them will come out as a preferred option.”

The polling bears out that this debate might seal the deal for many voters:

A new Wall Street Journal/NBC News poll found that 34% of registered voters think the three presidential debates would be extremely or quite important in helping them decide whom to support for president. About 11% of voters are considered “debate persuadables”—that is, they think the debates are important and are either third-party voters or only loosely committed to either major-party candidate.

Slightly more Republicans than Democrats said the debates would be important to them, 37% to 31%. But voter groups that seem poised to pay the most attention include several that Mrs. Clinton is counting on to win. Some 49% of Hispanics, 42% of African-Americans and 39% of voters under age 35 say that the debates will be extremely or quite important to them.

The smart money still says that voting coalitions are what they are, that most left leaners will come back into Clinton’s camp by end, and conservative Never Trumpers will, like Ted Cruz, hold their nose and come back to him. Which means, as usual, that despite all of Trump’s attempts at dividing the liberal coalition and Clinton’s attempts to siphon off educated conservative Romney voters, it will all basically come down to base turnout as usual.

But we are in uncharted territory here. This could be the year that the debate really makes the difference.

David Atkins

Follow David on Twitter @DavidOAtkins. David Atkins is a writer, activist and research professional living in Santa Barbara. He is a contributor to the Washington Monthly's Political Animal and president of The Pollux Group, a qualitative research firm.