Presidential Debating: Does it Matter?

Presidential Debating: Does it Matter?

by Don DeBats

Labor Day has come and gone and with that, the 2016 US election campaign has officially begun — even though it may seem it has been going on forever.

Primary elections are used to select the candidates for all levels of American politics, from president to county officials, and the wider primary season which began on February 9 finished on September 13. This means all nominations are now determined and all ballots can now be printed. And so early voting requiring no application or excuse has also begun, with the first “November” ballots lodged in Wisconsin in the little town of Wisconsin Rapids (population 18,039) on September 19. Idaho, Minnesota, South Dakota, Vermont, and Wyoming open early voting on September 23, New Jersey does so the next day, and Illinois, Iowa, North Dakota do so on September 29. In all 37 states allow non-excuse early voting and about 30% of the estimated 130,000,000 to 140,000,000 votes anticipated in this election will be cast before the official Election Day on Tuesday, November 8. In very few places in the US is a Tuesday election day an actual deterrent to voting.

The presidential candidates have long been chosen; that separate primary election process began on February 1 in Iowa and finished on June 14 in Washington DC. They attracted the participation of about 57,600,000 voters, the second highest number of participants (just below 2008 which was also a green field election with no incumbent president or vice president standing) in the history of presidential primaries. Both Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump secured solid majorities of delegates elected in those primaries, Clinton far easier than Trump. Both candidates, however, share remarkably high negative ratings among the same public that participated or did not participate in the primaries: this is a presidential election in which “neither of the above” is the real popular choice.

It remains to be seen how many of the disaffected will vote for the Gary Johnson, the Libertarian Party candidate, or Jill Stein, the Green Party candidate, or the host of other presidential candidates on the ballot in various states. Both Johnson and Stein also stood in the 2012 election and together obtained just over 1.7 million votes, 1.3% of the total vote cast. But in an election where many voters regard the two main candidates as “deplorable,” the third (and fourth and fifth) party candidates will do better than they do in most elections. The minor party vote this time around will probably total closer to five percent of all votes cast and that is more than enough to make a difference in the Electoral College outcome (more on that later) of several states.

We need to remember, then, that this is a very large and very important election, actually series of elections. It is (too) easy to think of this as a “presidential election.” Also to be elected are 12 state governors (e.g. premiers), all 435 members of the US House of Representative, 34 (of the 100) US Senators, 1210 state senators (61 percent of the total), 4710 members of state houses of representatives (87 percent of the total), plus countless other local officials. State judges from local to the state supreme courts will be elected on November 8 and thousands of referenda issues will be decided and become law. These elections are as important if not more important than the presidential contest: the host of other officials chosen on November 8 will be a check on the actions of whomever is finally chosen as president, whether that be Hillary Clinton or Donald Trump.

The next big steps in the presidential ring of this highly entertaining and important circus are the debates which begin on Monday evening, September 26. There will be two other debates between Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump and one between Senator Tim Kaine of Virginia and Governor Mike Pence of Indiana, the respective vice presidential candidates. Each debate will last 90 minutes.

The bi-partisan Committee on Presidential Debates is not anxious to include minor party candidates and has set of threshold of 15 percent support in the major public opinion polls to participate in the Presidential Debates. Neither Johnson nor Stein came close to that threshold and they are excluded from participation. The CPD has also announced the schedule and format of these four encounters:

First presidential debate (September 26, 2016, Hofstra University, Hempstead, New York).  The debate will be divided into six time segments of approximately 15 minutes each on major topics to be selected by the Lester Holt, the moderator, from NBC News. Those topics are “America’s Direction,” “Achieving Prosperity,” and “Securing America.”  Holt will open each segment with a question, after which each candidate will have two minutes to respond. Candidates will then have an opportunity to respond to each other. The moderator will use the balance of the time in the segment for a deeper discussion of the topic.

Vice presidential debate (October 4, 2016, Longwood University, Farmville, Virginia).  The debate will be divided into nine time segments of approximately 10 minutes each. Elaine Quijano (CBS News) will ask an opening question, after which each candidate will have two minutes to respond. Quijano will use the balance of the time in the segment for a deeper discussion of the topic.

Second presidential debate (October 9, 2016, Washington University in St. Louis, St. Louis, Missouri). The second presidential debate will take the form of a town meeting, in which half of the questions will be posed directly by citizen participants and the other half will be posed by the two moderators (Anderson Cooper, CNN, and Martha Raddatz, ABC News), based on topics of broad public interest as reflected in social media and other sources. The candidates will have two minutes to respond and there will be an additional minute for the moderator to facilitate further discussion. The town meeting participants will be uncommitted voters selected by the Gallup Organization.

Third presidential debate (October 19, 2016, University of Nevada-Las Vegas, Las Vegas, Nevada). The format for the debate will be identical to the first presidential debate and the moderator will be Chris Wallace, Fox News.

For those who are real debaters, we should note of course that these “debates” are not really debates at all. No one is keeping score, there is no official winner or loser, there are no penalties (as there are in real debates where judges penalize those who dissemble, lie, or just do not make points well), and there is very little direct interaction between the candidates. The capacity of the moderator(s) to exercise control is very limited because no one wants the debate to be about the moderator and his or her role in the event.

But do they matter? As ever in the Social Sciences, it is difficult to attribute causality to an effect. We cannot conduct a controlled experiment to determine how an individual who says that he or she watched all or some part of the debates would have voted without watching or listening to all or some of the debates. We cannot re-run that person’s life removing the debates from the voter’s decision. Insofar as there is a political science consensus on the question of “whether the debates matter,” the answer probably is, if the test of mattering is whether they change votes, that they do not matter very much.

A second question is whether the debates determine the outcome of the election. The answer here is much clearer: almost certainly not. First there is audience size: self-reporting of watching the debates is twice as high as what professional organizations estimate of the debate audience. People see excerpts of debates and then believe, or say, they watched the debate. And then there is the gap between debates and the election: from this year’s first debate, which will be the most watched, the gap to Election Day will be seven weeks. The last presidential debate is usually, as this year, two weeks before Election Day making a causal connection even more problematic. Moreover, as noted above, about a third (and an ever increasing portion) of the electorate will have voted early, some before the first debate, many before the last debate.

But are they important? Yes is the clear answer. This will be the 12th presidential election with “debates:” the first was in 1960 between John Kennedy and Richard Nixon (no vice-presidential debates then). During the great upheavals of American society and politics from the 1960s to the Watergate crisis, there were, paradoxically, no debates; they began again in 1976 and have been held every presidential year since then. The figures we do have suggest that in 2012 some 67 million people watched at least some of the debates – that amounted to more than a quarter of the voting age population and just over 40 percent of all household.

For those who watch carefully, many questions about the character and capacity of the Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump will be answered in these debates. Those who do not watch carefully will be content with the media’s sure focus on what will be defined as gaffes, for which both of this season’s candidates have demonstrated a considerable and consistent capacity. In a word, there is something in the presidential debates’ political theater for everyone.

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