Presidential debates rarely change minds or sway elections. So why have them?

An expert explains what voters do and don’t get out of watching presidential debates.

Like millions of other Americans, Benjamin Warner is watching this year’s presidential debates very closely. However, he’s one of the few viewers doing so with a very specific scholarly background. An Assistant Professor of Political Communication at the University of Missouri, he researches presidential debates and how they affect elections. We asked him how these research findings inform the way he’s watching the debates this election season.

ResearchGate: The candidates have made their positions and personalities clear throughout the campaign. What’s the point of having debates?

Benjamin Warner: Most voters don’t follow the election nearly as closely as academics, journalists, and political junkies do. As much as we lament the “dueling press conferences” feeling that we get when we hear the candidates deliver their same core message that we’ve heard weekly since April, the debates are the first time many voters hear this stuff. As a result, the candidates have a rare opportunity to deliver their message directly to the largest audience of the campaign. The debates provide an unparalleled opportunity for voter learning. What is even more important, in my opinion, is that the debates give viewers confidence that they know enough about the candidates to participate more fully in the campaign process. After watching a debate, viewers are more likely to follow election news, discuss the election with friends and family, get involved in one of the campaigns, and vote. This all results from the boost in their confidence that they have enough information about the candidates to make an informed judgement. So it’s always good to see very large viewership ratings.

RG: Media observers have said Lester Holt’s low-key approach to moderating the debate let the candidates’ personalities shine through. Is the debate more about personality than policy?

Warner: Viewers are more likely to use the debates to make a judgement about the quality of the candidates’ characters than to adjudicate issue disputes. Policy disputes are often very complicated and most viewers do not have the inclination or expertise required to decide which candidate has the superior policy proposal. Instead of attempting to resolve complex policy debates on the basis of the dueling facts and contestations proffered by the candidates, voters use the debates to decide which individual they trust to lead the country. As a result, it is important that candidates look component, like they have good command of the facts, like they have good judgement, like they are capable leaders, and like they will fight for the interests of the viewer. After all, we are electing a person, not a policy.

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RG: Both Clinton and Trump are tweeting that they “won” the debate. Will voters disagree on the outcome as much as the candidates do?

Warner: Generally, voters will see what they want to see. Those who like Trump will typically be familiar with his arguments and will trust what he says more than they trust what Clinton says. This means that when the candidates disagree about something, Trump's position will generally be in alignment with what his supporters already think and these supporters will be more likely to believe him when he challenges Clinton's assessment of the facts. This works both ways, and always has. It is fairly logical. If you think Clinton is smart and has a strong command of the issues but you think Trump is a BS artist who routinely lies, when they clash over facts in the debate, who are you going to believe?

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RG: So candidates can’t use debates to change the public’s perception of them?

Warner: They can to a small extent. Voters may have a general sense of the candidates from what they have heard in the press. If a candidate can deviate from the caricature of them that emerges from passively following press coverage, they can shore up support among people who are potential supporters but currently have reservations. This is what I believe Romney did after the first debate in 2012. By appearing to be a much more intelligent and reasonable person than the image of him that emerged after the 47% tapes and the summer of Bain Capital ads, he reassured potential supporters and his polling numbers rebounded to where they should have otherwise been. Clinton and Trump can both benefit from resetting their public image in a similar way.

RG: Do you expect this year’s debates to affect the outcome of the election?

Warner: Debates rarely influence enough voter perceptions to sway the outcome of an election. Exceptions include situations where it’s a very close election, if a relatively unknown candidate uses the debate to resolve serious voter reservations, if there are a large number of undecided voters who are potentially persuadable, or if one candidate makes a huge mistake that changes the trajectory of the election. I don’t expect any of those dynamics to be in play this time around.

Update: The results of the latest debate-viewing study by the University of Missouri’s Political Communication Institute are now available

Want to learn more? Here’s some suggested reading:

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