How the U.S. Presidential Debates Affect Voters’ Decisions

It is during the debate stage the major party candidates come together side by side, and “voters really value that opportunity to compare the candidates,” Dr. McKinney says.

The United States presidential debates over decades has played a major role in shaping the perspectives of the electorate as it relates to voting for a particular candidate during the election.

According to the Bill of Rights Institute, since the first televised presidential debate in 1960, history has proven that the debate has a profound effect upon the result of the elections.

The institute said for many years, the debate has been relied on to decide which candidate will receive the highest votes. 

This changed in 2016 during the race between Democratic candidate Hilary R. Clinton and her Republican counterpart, Donald J. Trump. 

The United States presidential debate, a poll conducted by Public Policy Polling, found that 51% thought Clinton won the debate, while 40% thought Trump won. Another poll conducted by YouGov found that 57% of Americans declared Clinton the winner of the debate, while 30% declared Trump the winner.

Dr. Mitchell S. McKinney, Professor of Communications, University of Missouri and a national and international expert on presidential debates who has been studying debates since the late 1980s, said the campaign period lasts for two and the half years for the presidency and a long primary season. But it is during the debate stage the major party candidates come together side by side, and “voters really value that opportunity to compare the candidates.”

Speaking on the role of debates during a zoom meeting on “Elections 2020: Virtual Reporting Tour (VRT)”, Dr. McKinney informed journalists that “under equal conditions, wherein a general election debate, we expect to hear equally from the candidates in the debate, voters tend to think of the debate moment as a useful, credible form of campaign communication — as opposed to the candidates’ ads, as opposed to the candidates controlled convention addresses, or their stump speeches, or perhaps their media appearances on partisan media or their chosen media network.”

He said voters see the debate stage as a credible form of information. “Now, that credibility that voters point to the debate message, I think, is driven largely by the fact that candidates are not in control of this message, candidates show up without notes, without teleprompter, without their aides around them. They do not know what questions are going to be put to them. And therefore, in that moment, voters see how they respond to a journalist’s question, how they respond to one another when they are attacked.”

Dr. McKinney said more illustrations have demonstrated that voters continuing to use the debate message, the debate moments, as an important point in the long campaign, adding that certainly when the debate first started, in terms of the size of the US population back in 1960, the debates had great appeal, great reach, with about 80% of the US adult population that viewed or listened to at least one of those Kennedy-Nixon debates. 

“Yet, if you look at these numbers, now there was perhaps a little lag as we see in the mid-90s, of debates, but the interest generated and, as I said, 84 million [viewers] in that first Clinton-Trump debate four years ago, set the all-time record. That number of viewers actually gets us close to what I say is things like Super Bowl viewership,” he said. 

Dr. McKinney said “currently the polls show Joe Biden with a modest national lead — perhaps five, six, seven points. Yet when you drill down to the battleground states and US voters, we are very well aware now that where our elections, our presidential elections in terms of electoral college are won and lost, are in particular states. When you drill down to the battleground states, you see a number of those battleground states currently with perhaps Biden up by one point or two points. Or Florida, or North Carolina, perhaps Trump up by a half a point or one point. So, debates have shown their ability to reach that very small slice of the undecided, uncommitted, the persuadable. And of that group, consistently 3% to 4% will come out of viewing debates, again, 3% or 4% of 87 million claiming that they now have committed, they now know who they’re going to vote for.”

He said due to COVID-19, the debates will change this year such that, in the actual hall, the audience will be much smaller. The traditional gesture by candidates to enter the stage, embrace and shake hands with one another, will not be taking place. Instead, they will stay separated, as a means of observing the safety precautions.

Dr. McKinney said the debate commission comes forward with a proposal which, it is hoped, is put together in a way that the candidates will be most likely to accept and agree to. Most often a challenger, particularly to an incumbent president, will usually agree and wants to debate. 

Demographics of the U.S. electorate 

Bradley Jones, PhD, a research associate of Pew Research Center, who primarily works on U.S. Public opinion about politics, in a briefing, said  most of their telephone surveys conducted shows that 90% of the public are either identifying with the Republicans or the Democrats  or they feel close to either party.

Dr. Jones said for all of the societal and demographic changes that the U.S. has undergone, the fundamental partisan balance in the country has not changed too much.

 “The one trend that we do see in identification is the increasing share of the public who call themselves Independents, who decline to identify with either party. In fact, our most recent data on this from the telephone [surveys] shows that more voters call themselves independents than identify with either one of the major parties. But again, when we follow up with those voters and we ask them if they lean towards one of the major parties, we find that people who tell us that they are closer to one of the major parties act very much like those who say they identify with the parties,” he said.

Dr. Jones said there is not a lot of change over the last 25 years, the popularity of one party has increased or decreased slightly but the fundamental balance remains pretty closely divided in the country.

He named race as one of the most important factors in American politics, which is seen within racial groups.

 “About half of white voters identify with or lean towards the Republican Party and about 40% do the same towards the Democratic Party. Black voters overwhelmingly have associated with the Democratic Party and only a small minority says they feel closer to the Republican Party. Hispanics are about somewhere in between, where about 60% call themselves Democrats or lean towards the Democratic Party and about 30% with the Republicans,” Dr. Jones said.

Dr. Jones said education is an important dividing line in American politics, adding that “over the past 25 years a great change in terms of an increasingly educated electorate, and educated voters have trended towards the Democratic Party. So those with a college degree or more education now, the Democrats have the 20-percentage-point advantage in terms of voters who affiliate with the Democratic Party.  That was a reversal from 1994, when Republicans actually had an advantage with college educated voters.”


Please enter your comment!
Please enter your name here