That’s true, when it comes to wins and losses. Over and over again, studies have demonstrated that debates rarely affect popular opinion or voting behavior. But another robust body of research shows that debates do affect how much people know about the candidates – and, especially, about the issues – in a presidential campaign. And we shouldn’t forget that, either.
Consider the 1976 debate, where incumbent President Gerald R. Ford supposedly lost the White House by claiming – in the midst of the cold war – that Poland was not dominated by the Soviet Union. The comment didn’t have any measurable effect on the electoral fortunes of Ford, who actually gained ground through most of the campaign. But research also demonstrated that people who watched the debates were better informed than people who didn’t.
Ditto for the 1988 face-off between George H.W. Bush and Michael Dukakis, who was asked by newsman Bernard Shaw if he would want his wife’s murderer put to death. A longtime opponent of capital punishment – and a man of consistent principle – Mr. Dukakis said no. Stunned journalists pronounced his political epitaph right after that.