On September 26, 1960, presidential candidates John Fitzgerald Kennedy and Richard Milhous Nixon took the stage in CBS studios in Chicago to debate the hot-button issues of the day and argue their own merits as candidates.
Debates had been an integral part of American politics for much of its history—think Lincoln-Douglas—but never before had they been structured in such an accessible format, or more importantly, televised.
On that day, the American political scene was changed forever.
Today, when even the primary debates are a spectacle given pomp comparable to a major sporting event, it is difficult to imagine a time when they wouldn’t have been an established part of the election process. Most casual voters who don’t pay an excessive amount of attention to the news of the day tend to use the debates as their primary source of information about the candidates’ policies.
Some may find it troubling that this is the only way that such people learn about the candidates; others are content just that the populace will have seen and heard who they will be voting for before they step into the booth. But there is also a third school of thought, one that I subscribe to: that the debates ultimately do not matter all that much, and even when they do, they shouldn’t.
Granted, this is merely an opinion, and there is no clear consensus among political scientists as to its validity. I’m sure Carly Fiorina would disagree with me, and she could point to her new 15 percent support rating in the CNN poll after the debate—second in the GOP field only to Donald Trump—as the proof in the pudding. But looking at the raw numbers without context isn’t enough to come to a conclusion.
Consider that Fiorina has seen her numbers rising steadily for a month, when she sat at just three percent in early September. It’s been the result of public appearances, advertising money, and a (largely) positive narrative in the news media, and not just her reiteration of already established viewpoints and conservative vitriol on a random Wednesday in September.
Further proof can be found in the past: Mitt Romney was the initial GOP favorite in 2012 and saw a different challenger threaten his top spot after every debate only to win the nomination anyway; political scientists Robert Erikson and Christopher Wlezien found in a comprehensive study of every presidential election between 1952 and 2008 that “the best prediction from the debates is the initial verdict before the debates.” In other words, while they may affect the route to the final destination, they rarely change it.
Furthermore, even if they did matter a little (and for the sake of this argument we will assume that they do) would it even be a positive thing? Political debates as they are set up today are hardly fair, particularly in primary season when up to a dozen candidates can be pitted against each other at the same time.
Some candidates, invariably the favorites, will be allowed to speak more, and by design not everyone is allowed to respond to the same questions or address the same issues. Debates, particularly when televised and arranged as entertainment, also favor attractiveness, skillful oration, and uniqueness from the rest of the field over any of the subject matters actually being discussed.
Case in point being Carly Fiorina, the popular pick as the “winner” of the debate, who was the only woman on a stage with ten men and drew the biggest audience reaction of the night with an utterly meaningless jab at something Donald Trump once said about her face. It was irrelevant to the actual political discussion and yet was probably her shining moment of the night.
Whether or not they are ultimately important, debates are here to stay. I suppose it never hurts to hear a little more about what the candidates have to say, even if it won’t change your mind. Or maybe I just love to watch Donald Trump make emoji faces. Either way, whether you think it’s a voter’s responsibility or just pure entertainment, millions will be watching the next debate too. Including yours truly.