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Presidential debates – do they matter?


The third presidential debate this week will largely determine the final stages of voting in the United States, writes Professor Don DeBats.

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In all, 37 American states allow non-excuse early voting and about 30 per cent of the estimated 130 million to 140 million 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 greenfield 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.

For those who are real debaters, we should note that the three presidential “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 penalise 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 organisations 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, about one-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 these 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 per cent 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 theatre for everyone.

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 per cent 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 5 per cent 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 also 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 (eg premiers), all 435 members of the US House of Representatives, 34 (of the 100) US Senators, 1210 state senators (61 per cent of the total), 4710 members of state houses of representatives (87 per cent 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.

Professor Donald A DeBats is director of American Studies at Flinders University’s Centre for United States and Asia Policy Studies in the School of History and International Relations. He co0ordinates the Flinders Washington Internship Program. Professor DeBats also chairs the Board of Directors of the Australian-American Fulbright Commission and is a member of the Academic Advisory Board of Carnegie Mellon University Australia. His research appointments include the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, the National Humanities Center of the US, and the Virginia Foundation for the Humanities at the University of Virginia.

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