Have Presidential Debates Changed The Way We Vote?

When you think about the history of presidential debates, you probably imagine an institution as old as the office of President of the United States itself. Why, there were so many great, election-changing debates throughout American history! Like Kennedy-Nixon! And Lincoln-Douglas! And also...the rest! But you might not be aware that presidential debates as we know them didn't play a role in elections for most of American history — and even today, their role in actually deciding votes is, well, up for debate.

To begin with, debates didn't exist in early American presidential politics. George Washington never debated any opponents before being elected president in 1789 — not only because he was unopposed (and he was considered to be pretty reluctant to take on the office of president in the first place), but because even if he hadn't been, there probably wouldn't have been much of a public audience for a debate. At the time, only Pennsylvania and Maryland determined their presidential electors by letting their (white, male) residents vote for electors; other states had their electors picked out by the state legislator.

As our government developed further, more and more states began to have their presidential electors voted in (by white men, rather than all state residents). But no presidential candidates are known to have engaged in a debate until the seven Lincoln-Douglas debates of 1858. However, while that is considered by many to be one of the most impactful, tide-turning political debates of all time, it wasn't actually a presidential debate — it took place when the two men were competing for Illinois' U.S. Senate seats, two years before either of them would campaign for the presidency. And in execution, it looked far different from today's fast-paced debates: Lincoln and Douglas gave a series of 30-to-90 minute speeches at these events.

While presidential candidates occasionally engaged in debates in the decades after Lincoln-Douglas, none were considered particularly important until 1960's Kennedy vs. Nixon, America's first televised presidential debate. As Bob Greene noted in a piece on presidential debates for CNN, "Before [Nixon and Kennedy's] debates, no presidential candidates in a general election had debated on radio or television. There had been intraparty, primary-season debates but never one after the end of the summer conventions."

The Nixon/ Kennedy debate is the stuff of political myth, of course — anyone with a minimal level of interest in U.S. history can tell you that this event showed the power of debate, and the debut of a new public mentality that viewed the young, handsome, smooth-talking JFK as inherently superior to the haggard-seeming, easily flustered Nixon. As Neil Minnow and Craig L. LaMay wrote in Inside the Presidential Debates, "President John F. Kennedy told me more than once that without the televised debates he would not have been elected president in 1960." And surveys from the time showed that though radio listeners overall thought Nixon triumphed, television viewers perceived Kennedy as the winner of the debate by a large margin.

So it stands to reason that this event marked the beginning of a new, debate-centric era, where public opinion was swayed by a politician's personality and whether you'd like to have a beer with them, not their proposals and political wonkery — right?

It's an easy narrative to believe — but perusing the facts (as well as the takes of a number of political theorists) present a slightly different picture. For starters, though we often think of Nixon vs Kennedy as the beginning of an era when debate snafus could make or break a candidate, there wasn't another presidential debate for 16 years, until Gerald Ford debated Jimmy Carter in 1976 (some of this was likely due to the fact that for every year except 1960, a rule on major networks required that equal time be given to third party candidates during debates, which made televised debating seem less appealing to major candidates — until 1976, when the policy behind televised debates was changed).

And according to Greene, history has forgotten a few other relevant facts about the 1960 election — like that an infection kept Nixon in the hospital for two weeks during August, when he had planned to be campaigning. This could have figured in as heavily in Nixon's loss as the fact that JFK was a confident hottie. So there's no real proof that the rise of televised presidential debates led people to suddenly use new criteria to judge their candidates.

In fact, according to a 2008 piece by Lydia Saad on Gallup, the myth of the "game-changing" presidential debate rarely actually corresponds to the actual facts of an election. Saad noted that Gallup had been tracking voting patterns since 1960, and had discovered only a handful of elections where voters seemed significantly swayed by what they saw during the debates: "The two exceptions are 1960 and 2000, both very close elections in which even small changes could have determined who won. In two others -- 1976 and 2004 -- public preferences moved quite a bit around the debates, but the debates did not appear to alter the likely outcome." And, said Saad, even the fabled Kennedy-Nixon debate had less overall impact than most of us believe: "Given Kennedy's ultimate margin of victory in the popular vote of only two-tenths of a percentage point, it is clear the debates didn't produce a major shift in the structure of the election, but this debate-period boost in his support could very well have accounted for the outcome."

And as John Sides reported in a 2012 article for Washington Monthly, political scientist James Stimson's study of presidential debates and voting data from 1960 to 2000 found that “[t]here is no case where we can trace a substantial shift to the debates.” And the reasoning behind this make a lot of sense — despite attracting large viewer numbers, presidential debates "occur late in the campaign, long after the vast majority of voters have arrived at a decision. Moreover, the debates tend to attract viewers who have an abiding interest in politics and are mostly party loyalists." Thus, even our ideas about who won the debates aren't usually clear-cut — as Sides noted, since most debate viewers have already settled on a candidate to support, "[i]nstead of the debates affecting who they will vote for, their party loyalty affects who they believe won the debates."

But this all doesn't mean that tonight's debates won't have any impact. As Saad wrote for Gallup, "in highly competitive election years, any movement in voter preferences can be race altering, and the debates seem to have the potential to produce such movement" — and it is hard to think of a more competitive election year in recent memory. But as Alan Fisher said today in an article for AlJazeera.com, most folks will be tuning into tonight's debate simply in anticipation of what the two candidates will say when confronted with each other, rather than to make decisions about who to vote for; he invokes the 2012 debate between Mitt Romney and President Obama, which almost all viewers believed Romney "won," but which seemed to make little impact when Americans cast their votes. Fisher reminds us that rather than debates, "[w]hat will change the face of the election will be those unpredictable events between now and election day - things outside their control - and how they react." Will some of those unpredictable events occur on the debate stage tonight? That remains to be seen.

Images: Caroline Wurtzel/ Bustle; Wikipedia