Two-thirds (67%) of those who voted in the 2008 election said the debates between Barack Obama and John McCain were very or somewhat helpful in deciding which candidate to vote for, according to the Pew Research Center’s quadrennial post-election survey. (About three-in-ten (28%) said they were “very helpful” and 39% said they were “somewhat helpful.”)
Of course debates are “helpful” in deciding who to vote for. My only criticism of Pew’s report is the headline: “67% – Most Say Presidential Debates Influence Their Vote” which implies that debates are the determining factor for two-thirds of America’s voters.
As I’ve written previously, debates are incredibly influential, but not in the way that most people tend to assume. Debates 1) provide information about candidate platforms and policy positions, 2) provide insights into the candidates’ temperaments and personalities, and 3) help us imagine how they might perform under high-pressure situations. Most of the time, though, those who watch presidential debates have already made up their mind and want to cheer for their favored candidate. While it’s true that two-thirds of voters are influenced by presidential debates, there are few who would say that they decided who to vote for solely based on what they observed in the debates, or that changed their minds as a result of an answer that a candidate happened to give.
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