“I am the one candidate who can clearly defeat Obama in a series of debates.”

Newt Gingrich’s argument:

Republican presidential candidate Newt Gingrich, who won the South Carolina primary yesterday and is heading to Florida to campaign, said he is best-suited to face Democratic President Barack Obama in debates. “My job in Florida is to convince people that I am the one candidate who can clearly defeat Obama in a series of debates and the one candidate who has big enough solutions that they would really get America back on track,” Gingrich said today on CNN’s “State of the Union” program. “We’re a big country, we have big problems, and we need big solutions.”

It certainly sounds reasonable. After all, presidential debates are very useful. They allow voters to get an up-close look at the candidates in a format other than a campaign commercial. They help set the “tone” for the campaigns. They also help voters learn more about the candidates. So logically, the best debater will win the election, right?

Maybe. But probably not. Gingrich’s argument is based on the assumption that debates dramatically change minds and predominantly affect the outcome of presidential elections. While debates change some people’s minds and do affect the ultimate electoral outcome, most research has shown these effects to be small. Most people (including most Independents) vote for their party’s candidate in general presidential elections, no matter how spectacular or dismal their candidate’s debate performance.

Ultimately, research suggests that debates can potentially contribute between 1-3% to a candidate’s final vote total in a presidential election (see here and here). But ultimately, more fundamental forces like the economy and international conflict will have much more to do who wins in November than who schools who in the three presidential debates. GOP primary voters should consider this before basing their vote primarily on the potential for a strong general election debate performance.

CAVEAT 1: These effects hold for explaining general presidential elections. As can clearly be seen by the 2012 GOP race, debates have a much larger effect on primary campaigns where partisanship is not a salient factor.
CAVEAT 2: There is an outside possibility that the 2012 election will end up being very close. If that’s the case, the 1-3% that a debate performance might affect could very well make a difference in the ultimate outcome. I hesitate, though, to opine that Gingrich would do better than Romney in the debates though. Given Gingrich’s history of hyperbole, personal aggrandizement, and rhetorical extremism, I would dare say that Romney, while certainly being less entertaining, would likely be the more effective debater.
Note: A more detailed version of this argument will be published in an upcoming issue of Centre’s alumni magazine
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