Mellman: The minimal effects of debates
Winning a candidate debate is not tantamount to winning an election, nor should it be.
You’ve heard that these debates can generate a “surge,” that they’re “enormously important,” and “deeply consequential.”
While they can have a significant impact on fundraising and news coverage, they usually have little direct effect on races.
Consider the last Republican primary debate. According to the 538/Washington Post/Ipsos poll, former UN Ambassador Nikki Haley was the clear winner with 34 percent selecting her as the best performer and only 5 percent identifying her as the worst. Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis posted a second place showing, with 23 percent saying he was the best and 6 percent the worst performer.
Based on all the hype, you’d expect those debate victories to translate into improvement in the horse race.
Not so much. The percentage even considering a vote for Haley rose a mere 1.5 points, from 36.5 percent to 38 percent.
DeSantis actually lost 1.4 points after his second-place finish. The number just considering him fell from 49.7 percent to 48.3 percent.
Entrepreneur Vivek Ramaswamy was dubbed the biggest loser — 29 percent rated his performance the worst, while just 14 percent selected him as the best.
What happened to his support? The biggest loser suffered nearly the same fate as the second-place finisher — those considering Ramaswamy fell by 1.2 percentage points.
About equally bad was former New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, who was called the winner by just 8 percent of voters and the worst candidate on stage by 24 percent.
Yet his support increased by 1.2 points, from 13.7 percent to 14.9 percent.
The largest number of GOP voters were considering casting their ballots for Donald Trump, who didn’t participate in the exchange. Before the debate, 64.6 percent were considering voting for him and afterwards it was 63.1 percent, a decline of 1.5 points.
By the reckoning of this single before-and-after poll, this “deeply consequential” debate did not move any candidate in either direction by even two points.
One of the winners got tiny, positive movement in the horse race while the second-place finisher lost ground. One of the biggest losers gained a tiny percentage, the other lost a bit of support. All were well within the margin of error.
Because one poll could have missed the movement, it’s worth examining the impact according to 538.com, which aggregates and averages all the polls.
According to their calculation, Haley picked up about 1/10th of a point for her debate victory. Second-place finisher DeSantis added 2/10ths of a point to his vote total.
The minimal effects of this debate should come as no surprise. Michael Dukakis, Al Gore, John Kerry, and Hillary Clinton all won their much higher profile general election debates, yet none won the White House.
Our over-interpretation of debates stems partly from the illusion that the skills displayed on the debate stage somehow reflect the requirements of the presidency and that voters render political verdicts based on what appears to be intellectual trial by combat.
Even on “The West Wing,” being president has little to do with the skills on display in a debate.
In his study of presidential character, the late Princeton political scientist Fred Greenstein identified six traits central to successful presidencies:
Effectiveness as a Public Communicator
Most play no role in debates.
At first blush, debates appear to be one important test of communication skills, though presidential communication rarely occurs in debate format. Presidents communicate primarily through set speeches, answers to questions, or occasional off-hand remarks.
Candidates do have some opportunity to display vision in a debate, but it’s awfully difficult. Between gotcha questions from moderators, parrying zingers from opponents, and delivering one’s own well-practiced soundbites, there’s little opportunity to paint a broader vision for the country. That comes in inaugurals, States of the Union, and other set piece addresses.
Finally, Greenstein cites “emotional intelligence,” which he defines as being “free of distracting emotional perturbations.” Rarely are such emotional perturbations displayed during debates, though Donald Trump’s certainly were. They may have cost him debate victories, but not the White House.
Debates rarely decide elections, and that’s mostly, as it should be.
Mellman is president of The Mellman Group and has helped elect 30 U.S. senators, 12 governors and dozens of House members. Mellman served as pollster to Senate Democratic leaders for over 20 years, as president of the American Association of Political Consultants, a member of the Association’s Hall of Fame, and is president of Democratic Majority for Israel.