Thursday, August 6, 2015

Do Debates Matter?

Tonight at the big kid table, 10 GOP prez candidates will line up behind podiums exactly 42 inches apart and debate. No one knows what will happen. Will Donald Trump go postal? Will Jeb Bush stumble? Will any of the others score?

My question is ... do we learn anything from such debates?

The research says yeah, some. And post-debate analyses can subtly, and sometimes not so subtly, influence who we think "won" and who we think "lost," which has other consequences. Post-debate analysis has changed people's minds. Not often, mind you, and perhaps most famously in 1976 when Gerald Ford "freed" Poland. People thought he did well, then the post-debate analysts told them otherwise, and a couple of days later opinions changed.

But, and this is important, nearly all the research on debates and post-debate analysis was focused on those final debates between the Republican and Democrat (and rarely, independent) nominees. This is a GOP debate in August, more than a year before the general election, at a time when -- still -- only the truly politically interested are paying attention. As such, don't expect a lot of movement in opinions and support. A point here, a point there, that's about it, short of some dramatic moment when someone forgets the name of the third branch of government they want to cut.

Why is Donald Trump doing so well? Because, in part, he's drawing in people who normally would not be paying all that much attention. He's the wild card, as everyone knows. If he successfully zings some candidates and remains unscathed, he wins. If his lack of policy knowledge is exposed, he loses (a little). If someone hammers him right back ("at long last sir, have you no sense of decency?") then he loses even more.

Of course, who won and lost will be spoon fed to us by the networks. That's their job.

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