With the first presidential debate between Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump just hours away, the media hype about this campaign event is in full-swing. Pundits are promoting the debate as a “make-or-break” performance for both candidates. Cable news networks have spent the better part of the weekend leading up to the debate discussing the strategies that each candidate will use and today will feature CNN, Fox News, and MSNBC over-analyzing everything from moderator Lester Holt’s political affiliation to what the candidates will wear.
Despite the hype, the reality is that presidential debates rarely change the dynamics of the campaign that are already established this late in the election season. Political science research demonstrates that even the most memorable moments over the last five decades have really produced no game-changers, despite claims to the contrary.
Political scientists Robert Erickson and Christopher Wlezien performed regression analysis on the pre and post-debate polling results from 1960-2008 and found little difference in the support for each candidate after the debates, even though many believe that major changes occurred.
For example, in 1992, President George H. W. Bush was criticized for looking a his watch in the three-way debate with Bill Clinton and Ross Perot with pundits claiming that he was disinterested. The data show, however, that his action had no difference.
The one debate between Gerald Ford and Jimmy Carter in 1976 appears to be the outlier. There we signficant differences in the polling results after the debate in which Gerald Ford infamously commented that Eastern Europe was free from Soviet domination. However, contrary to public memory, the direction of public opinion was toward Gerald Ford, not away from him. He began the campaign against Jimmy Carter almost 30 percentage points behind, primarily because of his pardon of Richard Nixon in 1975. By Election Day, even after the Eastern Europe gaffe, Ford closed Carter’s lead and lost the election by two percentage point–hardly a game changer that hurt him.
If history is a lesson, then tonight’s debate will not change the overall dynamics of the race between Clinton and Trump. Polls show that the race is close, but that Clinton has a narrow lead in national surveys. Unless something really extraordinary happens–well beyond what we have seen in previous presidential debates–even a gaffe of Trumpian proportions may affect this race very little.