Yes, Jim Fallows, Debates Do Matter (But Not As Much As You May Think)

In the aftermath of the first presidential debate, as swing state polls began to converge with the national tracking polls, former Carter speechwriter and Atlantic magazine correspondent James Fallows tweeted, “Maybe acads will stop saying debates never matter MT @ppppolls Obama down 6 overall, -6 MT, -5 NV, -5 WI, -4 MA, -2 VA vs pre-debate” .  He followed up on this theme in an interview on NPR in which he argued that debates do, in fact, matter.

Let me be clear: no political scientist that I know of believes that “debates don’t matter” (although I don’t doubt that a cursory or short-hand reading of some of their comments may lead one to believe this.)  Instead, what they argue is that the persuasive impact of debates is small, and therefore debates themselves are rarely consequential in terms of independently altering the outcome of an election.  But this is different from saying they don’t matter.  In fact, debates do matter.  I have argued that the first presidential debate served as a focusing event, allowing many voters to make a side-by-side comparison of the two candidates for the first time.   In so doing, a small number of viewers may have been persuaded that Mitt Romney is not nearly as extreme as he was being portrayed by the Obama campaign, and that given the economic fundamentals driving this campaign, they might take a chance on the challenger.  In short, the debate accelerated a process that was already underway, in which polls, particularly at the state level, moved closer into alignment with what the fundamentals driving the vote dictated.

But notice that I said a small number of viewers.  For all the talk about what a disaster the first debate was for Obama, the impact on his polling support was not very large. Middlebury College student Anna Esten, building on research by political scientist Tom Holbrook regarding the impact of previous debates, calculates that Obama lost 2.7% support nationally after the first debate. (She based this on a comparison of the average of national polls in the field in the week before the debate with the average of polls in the week after.) As you can see in the chart below, which incorporates Holbrook’s data, Obama’s 2.7% drop is relatively large impact for a first debate – about .5% larger than the second biggest – but not overwhelmingly so.

Incumbent Party Percent of Two-Party Vote During Debate Periods, 1988 to 2008
Debate Pre-Debate Post-Debate Bump Total Change During Debate Period



















































































Moreover there is some evidence that the second debate, which some Obama supporters claim is his best debate performance ever!, may have at least arrested Obama’s polling decline, and may even have given him a small polling boost. This is a reminder that there is one more debate to go, this one tomorrow night dealing with foreign policy.   So we shouldn’t jump to the conclusion regarding the impact of the debates this year quite yet.  Fallows may be tweeting a different tune come next week.  (“My bad – acads right again.”  Ok, maybe not.)

For a variety of reasons, however, I would not expect tomorrow’s debate to have nearly the impact of the first presidential debate, or even the second one, for that matter.  First, and I don’t want to make too much of this given the small “n”, the average impact of the four third debates dating back to 1992 on the incumbent party’s polls is a miniscule -.10.  That compares to -1.19 for the first debate, and -.24 for the second.   Second, tomorrow’s debate centers on foreign policy. This is a topic much in the news of late due to the controversy over the killing of a U.S. diplomat and his security team in Benghazi, and more recently the reports  – denied by the White House – that Iran has agreed to bilateral talks with the U.S. regarding its nuclear program.   Nonetheless, most polls indicate that voters’ concerns over the economy far outweigh their interest in foreign policy questions.   Finally, we have had two relatively widely viewed debates so far, with the audience for the second, at an estimated 65.6 million viewers, only slightly smaller than the 67 million who tuned into the first debate.  (This does not count the millions more who viewed the debates through other means, such as computers and tablets.)  I expect that the audience for tomorrow’s debate will be smaller than that for the first debate – and perhaps even less than the second, since it will be occurring opposite Monday night football.  And there likely will be fewer undecided voters within the viewing audience.   Finally, with the election polls now more in line with where I have been predicting they would be since Labor Day, I think there is likely to be a bit less volatility in the polling in the remaining 17 days before the Election.

Again, this is not to say that Monday’s debate “won’t matter.”   It should help at least some of the remaining undecideds begin considering their vote choice in light  of the fundamentals, and in this regard should continue the process of bringing the polling closer in line with the actual vote come November 6.   But I would be very surprised if it led to a bump, or slide, in Obama’s polling anywhere near the 2.7% impact of the first debate.

That doesn’t mean it won’t  be entertaining, however!  As always, I’ll be on, live blogging, and yes, the live blogging software is now installed and operating properly. (Really.  I mean it.)  So join in. It’s scheduled to start at 9, and I’ll be on slightly before.

And, remember, you can’t ever be sure who is watching the debate, and what they will learn (hat tip to Kate Hamilton)!


  1. Ah, the Big Dog: the gift that keeps on giving! I’m glad he’s still on the national stage…..and his wife is too, (I think.)

  2. I believe that this third debate will matter, primarily because of the legs of the Benghazi coverup of the catastrophic mishandling of security in order to support the political story being told by Axelrod and company.

    We won’t have to wait long to find out, will we? Too bad for Obama he can’t get another lifeline from Candy…

  3. Romney really struck out trying to make Benghazi political.

    Had any minor event been blown out of proportion as much as this. Our troops die left and right in combat. Under all Presidents. And people don’t care a whole lot.

    Iran is now a positive for Obama. I’m sure conservatives here believe that’s another conspiracy. Iran helping a fellow Muslim.

  4. Struck out? Surely you jest. I think Libya will be front and center Monday night.

    How can one call it “Not Optimal” when four Americans are killed because an administration time and time again denied requests for beefed up security and responded by pulling the small force that was stationed there?

    Then, when faced with that error, decided to create a story line that distracted, deflected and avoided the real truth; it was a targeted organized raid. We now know they watched in real time with a Predator.

    Al Qaeda is NOT on its heels as Obama has been claiming in every stump speech; it is alive, growing stronger and bolder and attacking our facilities everywhere.

    But, how can the administration say that? It doesn’t comport with the campaign rhetoric laid out by Axelrad, Obama and company.

    Well, I notice Obama now has dropped the part about Al Qaeda being on its heels and no longer a threat.

    The President has made this political; he couldn’t even wait for us to use the intelligence our SEALs gathered to catch and kill some more rats. As soon as he announced “That HE had killed Osama” then all the rats went scurring from their nests. In the Mideast they know better than to announce it when they assasinate someone big; they know revenge will be coming if they take credit.

    A great President would have never let anyone know for years, in order to avoid what we saw on September 11, 2012. But, then again…

  5. Sheldon perpetuates the claim that the Obama administration “decided to create a story line” when, the latest available information indicates 1) the administration accurately reported what the intelligence community was telling it at the time and 2) the anti-Islamist video really did play a role in what was probably an opportunistic attack in Benghazi. Indeed, it seems that the “long-planned, timed to the 9/11 anniversary” story line of Romney and his GOP supporters is the one looking a bit shabby at the moment. See:

    Perhaps people should just take a deep breath and let the facts come out once this sad event is thoroughly investigated, before jumping to their own politically motivated conclusions.

  6. Apparently the Romney campaign disagrees, Sheldon, because they clearly decided *not* to make Libya an issue this evening–or anything else. The 2nd debate seems to have proved decisive, at least with the 3rd–Romney’s strategy was apparently not to argue with the President and look pained.

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