First Democratic debate: How voters and the media differ on who won

Share on facebook
Share on twitter
Share on linkedin
Share on email
Chief Washington correspondent Major Garrett joins "CBS This Morning" to discuss the first round of Democratic debates, what voters thought of their performances and the who got the most speaking time.

It’s finally happening. On Wednesday, 10 Democratic candidates will take the stage in Miami for the first debate of the 2020 presidential campaign. On Thursday, 10 different Democrats will do it again. Sure, it will be entertaining. But do debates actually matter?

Debates “can lose you the campaign if you mess up too badly.”
According to University of Alabama–Birmingham political scientist William Benoit, who has spent years studying the effects of candidate debates, the answer is yes.

“Lots of things in the campaign have effects on the voters, and they accumulate over time,” Benoit says. “There are personal [campaign] appearances, and probably more important than that, there’s media coverage of personal appearances. There are TV spots. There are surrogates speaking. So it’s hard to say that one element, like a debate, is vital or can guarantee a win, because there are so many messages going around. Debates are useful for voters. They can help candidates. They can’t guarantee a win, but I think they can lose you the campaign if you mess up too badly.”

It’s finally happening. On Wednesday, 10 Democratic candidates will take the stage in Miami for the first debate of the 2020 presidential campaign. On Thursday, 10 different Democrats will do it again. Sure, it will be entertaining. But do debates actually matter?

Debates “can lose you the campaign if you mess up too badly.”
According to University of Alabama–Birmingham political scientist William Benoit, who has spent years studying the effects of candidate debates, the answer is yes.

“Lots of things in the campaign have effects on the voters, and they accumulate over time,” Benoit says. “There are personal [campaign] appearances, and probably more important than that, there’s media coverage of personal appearances. There are TV spots. There are surrogates speaking. So it’s hard to say that one element, like a debate, is vital or can guarantee a win, because there are so many messages going around. Debates are useful for voters. They can help candidates. They can’t guarantee a win, but I think they can lose you the campaign if you mess up too badly.”

The idea that a debate can really hurt a candidate is fairly intuitive—in extreme cases, it’s like a nationally televised implosion. The example Benoit uses is that of Rick Perry, the former Texas governor and current energy secretary who in 2011 spent 50 seconds trying to remember the three cabinet agencies he was promising to eliminate. Here, let’s relive it:

The extent to which debates can help a candidate is a bit more muddled because it’s complicated by factors such as how many candidates are running and when the debate is held. Benoit’s research has found that debates have tangible effects on voters’ candidate preference and that those effects are more pronounced during primaries than in general elections.

Timing matters, too. “Generally speaking, the first debate probably has more influence than other debates,” Benoit says, because it’s easier to go from being undecided to supporting a candidate than it is to abandon a candidate once you’ve decided to support them.

“But keep in mind that especially in the primary, voters might not watch the early debates. They might wait for the debate that’s going to happen in their state,” he adds. “For those voters, it sort of is…the first debate, even if it’s the third or fourth in the season.”

At the same time, the bounce a candidate receives from a very strong debate may not be permanent, which is why it’s sometimes tempting to dismiss the overall importance. The most famous example of a successful debate showing is probably that of then-Sen. John F. Kennedy during the general election in 1960, in what was America’s first televised presidential debate. Kennedy shined, and his opponent, Richard Nixon, flopped. But it happened long enough before Election Day that Nixon was able to slowly make up ground, ultimately losing by one of the narrowest popular-vote margins ever.

“It’s not like everyone shifts back and forth,” Benoit says. “But still, enough people shift that it makes a difference. If nothing dramatic happens…after a debate, the effects may persist longer. If something dramatic happens, [the impact of the debate] may be damped down quicker. But no matter whether it damps down or not, you would rather have a 3- or 5-percent bump a month out than not have a 3- or 5-percent bump.”

Leave a Comment

SHOWTIMES

The Dan Morris Show is on -air
Monday – Friday from 12pm – 3pm
on 93.1 News Talk on your FM dial

Copyright © 2019 Dan Morris Productions