Do Debates Affect Presidential Contests?

by Lydia Saad

2000 debates may have helped Bush


PRINCETON, NJ -- The 2004 presidential debates appear to have been a positive factor for John Kerry's candidacy, as CNN/USA Today/Gallup immediate post-debate polls show that Kerry clearly won the first and third debates in the eyes of the American television audience, and he tied with Bush in the second. In the follow-up polls taken days after the first two debates, Kerry's perceived positive performance in the debates increased, so that the public now sees Kerry, rather than Bush, as the winner of all three debates.

More information about the real impact of the debates will not be known, however, until the next wave of national polls are released showing where the presidential contest stands in the immediate aftermath of the final debate. And, of course, Election Day will be the ultimate test of how well the candidates fared. With this in mind, it is useful to review how previous presidential debates have appeared to affect the elections.

Gallup Poll trends back to 1984 show that the reviews Kerry has received for his debate performances are exceeded only by the positive reactions Bill Clinton received in 1992 and 1996. Across the three debates, Kerry has averaged a net +10 in public perceptions that he beat Bush. Clinton averaged +19 over George H.W. Bush in his debate performances in 1992 and +25 over Bob Dole in 1996 (although in 1992, third-party candidate Ross Perot beat both Clinton and Bush in the first and third debates).

While Clinton's debate victories preceded solid victories for Clinton at the ballot box, that pattern is not evident among other candidates. Most notably, Ronald Reagan won re-election by a landslide in 1984, despite losing to Walter Mondale in the first debate and essentially tying him in the second, for an average debate performance of -8. George H.W. Bush in 1988 also succeeded in winning that election by a fairly sizable margin (seven points over Michael Dukakis) despite losing to Dukakis in their debate.

The most recent, and perhaps most relevant example for this election is 2000, when George W. Bush faced Al Gore in three national debates. Those debates were essentially a draw, with Gore beating Bush in the first, Bush beating Gore in the second, and the two virtually tied in the third. This closely mirrored the election outcome, which was also a draw, with Gore winning the popular vote by just one-half of 1%, and Bush, of course, narrowly winning in the Electoral College.

But merely comparing debate performance with election outcome doesn't convey whether the debates had any effect on the dynamics of the campaign. A review of Gallup election trends throughout the debate season in each election suggests that, with the exception of 2000, there has been little change in the basic structure of these elections from the period immediately before the first debate to the period immediately following the final debate.

In 1984, Reagan led Mondale by 17 points just prior to the first debate, and continued to lead by 17 points one month later, after the second and final debate. In 1988, Bush led Dukakis by eight points just before their debate, and by nine points following that debate. In 1992, Clinton led Bush by 18 points before the first debate, and by 9 points following the second (with most of the decline in support for Clinton going to third-party challenger Perot). In 1996, Clinton led Dole by 18 points going into the first debate, and by 23 points after the final debate. 

As noted, the pattern in 2000 was different. Gore and Bush were essentially tied just prior to the first debate, with Gore at 46% and Bush at 44%. However, immediately following the third and final debate, Bush led Gore by 11 points, 51% to 40%. That lead proved to be temporary, however, as within two days the race was back to single digits, with Bush leading by only two to seven points throughout late October. Still, before the debates, Gore enjoyed a slight lead, while after the debates Bush enjoyed the lead -- which could have kept Bush competitive and helped him win the electoral vote.

Already Gallup has seen substantial movement in the national horse race over the course of the 2004 debates, similar to what was seen in 2000. In a Sept. 24-26 poll, Bush led Kerry by eight points among likely voters, 52% to 44%. Then, after Bush lost the first debate on Sept. 30, an Oct. 1-3 Gallup Poll showed Bush and Kerry tied at 49% in the presidential race. It remained a virtual dead heat -- 49% for Kerry and 48% for Bush -- in an Oct. 9-10 Gallup Poll following the second debate on Oct. 8.

Whether Kerry will now expand that lead after a strong performance in the third debate, and whether he can maintain the edge over Bush for the remaining few weeks before the election are the questions everyone is interested in, and for which the historical trends presented here suggest no clear answer.

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