What History Tells Us About Second and Third Debates

by Frank Newport

The “loser” of the first debate sometimes wins the second

GALLUP NEWS SERVICE

PRINCETON, NJ -- It is clear that a very large percentage of the U.S. population eligible to vote watched, or at least heard about, the first presidential debate between President George W. Bush and Democratic nominee John Kerry, held Sept. 30 at the University of Miami.

Nielsen Media Research estimates that the viewership was significantly higher than the first debate between Bush and Al Gore in 2000. An Oct. 1-3 CNN/USA Today/Gallup poll shows that over 7 out of 10 Americans say they watched the debate, and another 13% say they saw news reports about it. In other words, the debate directly affected the vast majority of the adult American public. Republicans and Democrats were roughly equal in their self-reports of having watched the debate.

Most observers agree that the first debate had a positive impact for Kerry, whom polling indicated was the winner of the debate, and who gained on Bush in Gallup and other polls conducted in the days after the debate.

Still, it is impossible at this time to make a prediction about the potential impact of the second presidential debate, to be held Oct. 8 at Washington University in St. Louis. An analysis of the pattern of viewer responses after debates conducted in previous election years shows that in some years the "winners" and "losers" did a complete turnabout, with the loser in the first debate doing much better in the second (and third). In other years, the candidate who lost the first debate continued to lose each subsequent debate.

Here's a look at recent years in which there was more than one presidential debate, and for which Gallup conducted "instant reaction" polls among debate watchers.

2000

The reactions of debate watchers to each of the three debates held in 2000 changed significantly as the debate sequence unfolded. Democratic candidate Gore won the first debate, according to debate watchers, by a 48% to 41% margin. But Bush rebounded in the second debate and won convincingly 49% to 36% (again, among debate watchers). In the final debate, which was a town hall format held at Washington University in St. Louis (also the site of this year's town hall debate), the two candidates were essentially tied, presaging the final result of the election that left Bush and Gore so close to one another than it took more than a month of wrangling, recounting, and Supreme Court decisions to decide the election winner.

Gore/Bush 2000


Gore


Bush


NEITHER (vol.)

BOTH/EQUALLY (vol.)

No
opinion

 

%

%

%

%

%

2000 Oct 17

46

44

*

10

*

2000 Oct 11

36

49

1

13

1

2000 Oct 3

48

41

2

8

1

* Less than 0.5%

1996

There wasn't much surprise or mystery regarding the two 1996 debates. Incumbent President Bill Clinton was leading in the polls throughout the fall campaign, and he comfortably won both debates with Republican nominee Bob Dole by wide margins. Clinton, of course, went on to win the election handily.

Clinton/Dole 1996


Clinton


Dole


No
opinion

 

%

%

%

1996 Oct 16

59

29

12

1996 Oct 6

51

32

17

1992

The sequence of debates in 1992 yielded a fascinating pattern of change. Ross Perot, the maverick third party candidate, convincingly won the first debate, coming in significantly ahead of both the Democratic challenger Clinton and incumbent President George H.W. Bush when debate watchers were asked who won. Clinton came back and won the second debate by an overwhelming margin over Bush and Perot (the second debate used the town hall format -- one that apparently dovetailed nicely with Clinton's personal characteristics and style). Perot also came out in front after the third debate, although the third contest was the closest among the three candidates, with Bush and Clinton tied behind Perot. When the dust settled on Election Day, though, Clinton won the popular vote by five points over Bush, while Perot received 19% as an independent candidate.

Clinton/Bush/Perot 1992



Clinton



Bush



Perot

NONE IN PARTICULAR (vol.)


No
opinion

 

%

%

%

%

%

1992 Oct 19

28

28

37

7

*

1992 Oct 16-18

58

16

15

7

4

1992 Oct 11

30

16

47

5

2

* Less than 0.5%

1984

The pattern of viewer response to the two debates held in 1984 probably offers the most solace to George W. Bush. Incumbent President Ronald Reagan, 72 years old at the time of the first debate, lost to Democratic challenger Walter Mondale by a fairly significant 19-point margin among debate watchers. Reagan came back, however, and won over Mondale (by a very slim margin) in the second debate. This second debate featured Reagan delivering his now famous quip about not taking the "youth and inexperience" of Mondale into account when the president was asked about the age issue in the campaign.

Ultimately, Reagan's loss in the first debate meant very little to the outcome of the election; he ended up besting Mondale by a 59% to 41% margin in the popular vote on Election Day, and Reagan won the electoral votes of every state except one.

Mondale/Reagan 1984


Mondale


Reagan

NEITHER (vol.)

No
opinion

 

%

%

%

%

1984 Oct 21

40

43

--

17

1984 Oct 7

54

35

8

3

Friday Night's Debate

Friday night's debate will be in a town hall format. Although ABC News' Charles Gibson will be moderating the debate, the questions will be asked by a random sample of uncommitted voters from the St. Louis Metropolitan area, selected by The Gallup Organization.

This is the fourth presidential election in which Gallup has been retained by the Commission on Presidential Debates to recruit a random sample of uncommitted voters from the area around the town hall debate venue. Gallup also did the same thing for a 1992 debate at the University of Richmond (with George H.W. Bush, Clinton, and Perot), the 1996 debate at the University of San Diego (Clinton and Dole), and the 2000 debate at Washington University in St. Louis (George W. Bush and Gore).

The basic procedure is very similar to those used when Gallup conducts a normal poll. Gallup begins with a random probability sample of the St. Louis area, asks people a series of questions to determine if they qualify as an uncommitted voter, and then invites them to be a participant in the debate if they qualify.

Although over 100 participants will be on stage behind Bush and Kerry, the 90-minute format means that only about 20 people will actually end up asking questions. Under the terms of the debate agreement hammered out by the two campaigns, moderator Gibson will select the questioners and will attempt to keep the questions roughly balanced between foreign and domestic issues.

The Expectations Game

George W. Bush was favored to "win" the first debate. He didn't. Gallup polling (and the results of other polls conducted after the debate) showed that debate watchers believed that Kerry had won. Indeed, in the CNN/USA Today/Gallup poll conducted Oct. 1-3, Kerry's perceived margin of victory increased, as the spin and media commentary on the debate continued.

For the Oct. 8 debate, expectations have changed, and that may be a good thing for Bush. Most debaters would rather be underdogs than expected winners. The Oct. 1-3 poll found that 48% of Americans now expect that Kerry will do the better job in the town hall format debate in St. Louis, while 41% say it will be Bush. In short, Bush is now the underdog.

The town hall debate on Friday will, according to the agreement signed by both parties, include both foreign and domestic questions. The third debate in Arizona will focus exclusively on domestic issues.

Survey Methods

These results are based on telephone interviews with a randomly selected national sample of 1,016 adults, aged 18 and older, conducted Oct. 1-3, 2004. For results based on this sample, one can say with 95% confidence that the maximum error attributable to sampling and other random effects is ±3 percentage points. In addition to sampling error, question wording and practical difficulties in conducting surveys can introduce error or bias into the findings of public opinion polls.

Get Articles in Related Topics:


Gallup http://www.gallup.com/poll/13525/What-History-Tells-About-Second-Third-Debates.aspx
Gallup World Headquarters, 901 F Street, Washington, D.C., 20001, U.S.A
+1 202.715.3030