Let the pundits argue about this week's presidential debate and whether it persuades voters. Let's ask a different question -- do people learn from such debates?
As always, there's the short answer and the long answer.
Short Answer: It depends.
Long Answer: It depends, with a whole bunch of caveats and academic nuances and all the stuff that gets in the way of a simple answer (unless, of course, you do talk radio or cable news, where everything is simplified to the point of meaninglessness).
Stay with me here. It's worth it.
One study, for example, examined five presidential election years (1976 to 2000) using ANES data, which the authors admit "is not optimal for conducting this sort of research." But this is key: they found learning about incumbents to be minimal, but learning about challengers to be more significant. That fits this upcoming debate between Barack Obama and his challenger, Mitt Romney.
The former Massachusetts governor, as pundits have noted for several weeks, has so much to gain from being on the same stage as an incumbent president. This study suggests people will also learn more about Romney. What they learn, that's of course of import, but the research suggests Romney gains a great deal from Wednesday night's debate.
Tomorrow (or maybe later today), what else research tells us about this week's debate.