The first presidential debate will air tonight, and throughout the many articles about who will win or lose and why, there has been a persistent criticism of the notion that debates affect the election. A lot of individuals are suggesting that the debates don’t really matter.
What? I say again, what? The debates don’t matter? Ask Kennedy and Nixon whether they think their debates mattered. Ask Reagan! His “are you better off” debate question has become a staple of counter incumbent campaigning!
Still, despite my frustrated exclamations, many will assert that if you look at the numbers debates don’t really have an effect on the polls, that they don’t change many voter’s minds. They suggest that since there is no evidence that debates matter, they don’t. First, it’s a fallacy to take a lack of evidence as evidence to the contrary. Second, this argument misunderstands how persuasion works, persuasion is not necessarily an instantaneous event, it is often a gradual process. Third, this argument is an oversimplification of how campaigns work.
The use of polls to gauge the political potency of anything is absurd. Polls are snaps shots, campaigns are not. No one event single-handedly changes the outcome of an election. Each outcome is shaped by events, responses, counter responses, which collectively accumulate until the conflict concludes on election day. You have to understand this before you can see how debates can be important.
Every campaign is a narrative, the key to running an effective campaign is to understand the conflicts within a candidate’s story and how to address, or avoid these conflicts. Throughout a campaign many conflicts arise, and a candidate’s ability to resolve them is what alters the momentum of his campaign. It is these two parts of the process, the resolution of conflict, and the change in momentum that I intend to discuss.
The best examples of how debates can alter narratives and in turn elections are provided by Ronald Reagan. Perhaps it was his experience as an actor, but he seems to have had the best grasp of the narrative nature of campaigns. In his debate with Jimmy Carter, the famous “Are you better off?” question was so effective because it presented a conflict for Carter to address regarding his record. That narrative dominated the discussion after that, and while the debate itself may not have affected the polls, it motivated the discussion that lasted long past the debate and over time surely had some effect.
In Reagan’s debates as an incumbent, he demonstrated once again how narratives animated in debates can alter campaigns. After a somewhat clumsy first debate performance a narrative began to form around the idea that he was too old for the presidency, a little scatter-brained perhaps. Reagan recognized the danger of allowing this narrative to play out, so in the next debate he resolved the conflict with humor. When the question arose he delivered the classic one-liner “I will not make age an issue of this campaign. I am not going to exploit, for political purposes, my opponent's youth and inexperience.” This tremendous one-liner used humor to resolve the conflict of the “too old” narrative and prevent its discussion from being as influential to the campaign.
Of course debates aren’t the only opportunity to introduce or resolve conflicts, but their ability to serve this function is what makes them politically relevant. Of course the issue is still more complicated than just the resolving of conflicts. Indeed if that were all it took then post-debate polls might show a significant change. This brings me to the second part of why debates matter, a change in momentum. The goal of a change in narrative is to change momentum; it is this momentum that over time changes the polls and ultimately the outcome of elections.
A change in momentum alters a lot of factors that a poll will never represent. Momentum motivates all sorts of action, and it is these actions that result in votes. For example:
When a campaign has momentum it is actively registering voters, and it has an enthusiastic voter turnout. Polls don’t necessarily reflect voter turnout.
Also momentum can bring in new donations to campaigns allowing them to run more ads or strengthen its organization, a factor that also affects elections and isn’t shown in polls.
A candidate with momentum can expect more news coverage, and generally more positive news coverage. Once again unnoticed by polls.
A campaign with momentum will get more volunteers and they will be more involved. Yet again, this is ignored by polls.
These are the kinds of changes that happen after debates. However they aren’t measured by polls, nor do they immediately affect the polls. This is why debates (and conventions, and other important election events) matter because they present an opportunity to address the conflicts a campaign faces and thus change the context of an election’s narrative. The result of this is a change in momentum, and the result of this is change in outcome.