Presidential debates can influence voter opinions

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By Hunter Johnson, Staff Writer

The presidential debates are some of the most memorable parts of an election cycle and the three this year between President Obama and Governor Romney were no exception. The three debates between the two in October showed stark differences.

A question that has often been posed about presidential debates is how relevant they are to the results of an election: Can debate performances sway voters to, or from, a candidate? Are the debates worth watching for voters?

Many believe they are worth the attention of voters.

“They give voters better knowledge of what [the candidates] stand for,” said UD sophomore Danielle Pajak. She said she “expected a lot of information” on their policy ideas so that potential voters “knew what [the candidates] were talking about” when not on the debate stage.

Senior Olivia Bach agreed. After watching the final debate, she said, “I wish I would have watched the others … just to be more informed.”

Jacob Samuel, a sophomore, also thought the debates were useful because they could require specific comments from the candidates.

“I definitely wasn’t expecting the candidates to sit down and enjoy a cup of tea,” he said. Samuel said the debates make candidates think on their feet and that’s when their “true policies are going to come out.”

Such situations have proved telling in the public’s perception of a candidate. In a Republican primary debate, Teas Gov. Rick Perry forgot the name of a federal agency he would close if elected president simply said “oops!” to the audience, further damaging his already fading campaign. In 1980, after receiving a scathing attack from President Carter during a debate, Ronald Reagan responded, “There you go again,” to much approval from the audience and many viewers at home.

Perhaps the most infamous among debate moments was the first televised debate that featured Vice President Richard Nixon and then-Senator John F. Kennedy. While Kennedy looked calm and well-collected, Nixon, recovering from surgery, was sweaty and appeared unprepared. The perception stuck, and some historians view this first debate as the time when public support shifted to Kennedy in the election.

This year, the debates have helped sway some voters’ opinions for or against candidates. Samuel was undecided about who he would support before the debates, but was leaning towards Obama. In the second and third debates, Samuel said the President “came out swinging every time … he made a point to point out every time [Romney] changed stances.”

Romney, Samuel said, was “not as aggressive in his approach” but that both men “showed their passion.”

With only days left before the election, Samuel said his position has shifted toward support of Romney. “[I had] never seen him so … on his heels before…[the President] took a blow.”

Of Romney, Samuel said the candidate was “definitely starting to perk my ears…[I started to] listen to what he said.”

Pajak said she had already made up her mind not to vote for Obama because of his performance in office. But she also said she was not convinced that she would support Romney. “I didn’t know too much about him before hand,” she said.

After watching Romney in the last two debates, Pajak said she felt more confident about voting for him: “I liked him more after because you learned more about his policies and changes he would make.”

While debates may not change many votes — many polls showed that most voters had already decided who they would support before the debates — they can still affect the outcome of a race.

Benjamin Knoll, assistant professor of government at Centre College in Danville, Ky., said in an essay on Centrepiece Online that “a number of studies have attempted to … [isolate] the independent effect of debates on the final outcome of presidential elections.

“Collectively, these studies suggest that debate performance can indeed ‘move the needle’ on the final vote totals for the candidates by somewhere between 1 and 3 percent. While this might not seem like much, it can be decisive in close elections.”

In discussing the possibility of debates shaping an undecided voter’s opinion, Bach said that the debates were an accurate way of judging candidates.

“When you see [campaign literature] and when you just read about [the candidates], you can’t always be sure what’s completely true. There’s just a little more authenticity to the person when … they’re answering questions in real time. [Debates] can shape an opinion.”

 

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