Steven V. Roberts: Why debates matter

Published 12:00 am Sunday, June 2, 2024

By Steven V. Roberts

Joe Biden and Donald Trump have agreed to debate twice — on CNN in June, then on ABC in September. Both think they can win, or at least gain an advantage over the other. But both can’t be right.

Political scientists agree that debates seldom have a decisive impact on any election, and this year, there are even fewer swing voters than usual. As polling analyst Nate Silver told Politico, “Almost nothing moves the polls these days because the candidates are so well known and everybody is so partisan. So, they (debates) don’t matter that much.” 

But there’s a flip side. Since this election, like the last two, is likely to be very close, even a small shift in public sentiment could have major implications. Debates often command huge audiences — 73 million watched the first Biden-Trump clash — and that’s not the whole story. Debates create content that can be shaped and shared up until Election Day.

So debates do matter. Or at least they can. As Alan Schroeder, who authored a book on the subject, told CNN: “The beauty of debates is it’s the only time during these lengthy, two-year-long campaigns where you see the candidates next to each other and confronting each other. … I think that’s a really important piece of any election, because it’s so different from everything else.”

Like TV ads, debates seldom change minds or preferences. What they can change, says Schroeder, is motivation and the willingness to act on your choices: “Maybe you’ve already decided you prefer one candidate over the other. But does that mean you actually go out and vote? If you watch the debate and you’re fired up by a strong performance or scared by what the other candidate is saying, then the debate could conceivably lead you to vote.”

The question then is how candidates galvanize their supporters. Sure, issues matter. Trump will stress inflation and immigration. Biden will emphasize abortion rights, infrastructure spending and climate change. 

But voters are often even more interested in personal traits — character, temperament, judgment. And debates provide a rare moment in any campaign when candidates have to perform live, under maximum stress, without teleprompters or advisers or even bathroom breaks. 

Frank Fahrenkopf Jr. is chairperson of the Commission on Presidential Debates, and while his panel has been sidelined by the candidates this year, he’s presided over 33 previous debates. Fahrenkopf told Ryan Lizza of Politico: “I’ve learned that the American people would really like to like their president. So I think that they’re not only making decisions based upon the answers that are given, but how they handle themselves.”

His comments illuminate why both candidates agreed to debate this year: They think that in any comparison of character, they’ll come out ahead. 

For Trump, the decision was easy. As the New York Times reports: “The Trump campaign believes, almost to a person, that Mr. Biden has declined significantly since 2020 and would be exposed in a debate against Mr. Trump.” Aaron Blake adds in the Washington Post: “The debates certainly risk confirming people’s concerns about Biden’s age if he can’t volley with an opponent who loves to interrupt and goad. But it’s a test that Biden, in particular, needed to take and pass.”

Yes, Biden needs to pass that test of energy and endurance, but the president took the risk of debating for another reason, as well. Inflation remains so indelibly irritating to so many Americans that if the election becomes a referendum on Biden’s tenure, he’s likely to lose. He has to reframe the question that voters ask themselves. Instead of “Are you happy with the economy?” he wants and needs them to ask: “Would Trump be even worse?” 

“The Biden campaign has been trying to remind voters of why a majority removed Mr. Trump from office in 2020,” writes the Times. “People close to the president have said they’re worried about so-called Trump amnesia — that voters are nostalgic about Mr. Trump and have forgotten how divisive he was — and some of the recent polling underscores that point. A side-by-side debate, which could have a large viewing audience, is the most dramatic way for the Biden campaign to give Mr. Trump more exposure, in their view.”

So both sides are making similar bets — that the other guy will falter. That the debates will expose their opponent’s flaws. Trump hopes Biden will look old and feeble. Biden wants Trump to appear unhinged and unstable. 

One candidate could be making a bad bet. But we won’t know which one until after the debates.

Steven Roberts teaches politics and journalism at George Washington University. He can be contacted by email at