Do presidential debates matter?

    Tonight the country will have its first chance to see President Obama and Governor Romney face off in their first of three presidential debates. As it stands, the race is tight nationally with Obama in the lead with 49 percent and Romney not far behind at 45.2 percent. That leaves 5.5 percent of the population either undecided or unhappy with their choices.

    So how important will tonight’s debate be? And how significant are debates in general, do they have the capacity to change the course of an election?

    Political commentators and academics both pay a lot of attention to the impact of debates, with differing conclusions.

    Political pundits such as Ed Rendell suggest that debates have the power to be game changers. According to Rendell, the first debate is “really Gov. Romney’s last, best chance. He can turn the dynamic around in the first debate. There’s no question about that.”

    Political scientists who study voter behavior are unlikely to agree.

    There is a consensus among scholars that debates do little to change candidate preference in presidential elections. According to John Sides, a political scientist out of George Washington University, debates do not have the effect of shifting enough attitudes to change the overall outcome of elections.

    James Stimson, another political scientist, agrees. “There is no case where we can trace a substantial shift to the debates,” he said

    Scholars have reached such a conclusion by drawing on polling data from before and after debates to identify their impact. According to Robert Erikson and Christopher Wlezien, who conducted one study on elections between 1952 and 2008, the state of the election prior to debates was most predictive.

    However, recently some analysts  note that the growing influence of social media may play a key role in the debates as each side will be able to further express their ideas to undecided voters in swing states.

    According to Marty Wiseman, a political science professor at Mississippi State University, “with the new, absolute explosion of social media, you can have the smallest little parenthetical expression that occurs in a debate, and you are going to see it parsed so many times in social media, there will be consequences.”

    So what is the purpose of presidential debates?

    Candidates present their ideas and vision for the county, apart from negative ads and sound bites.

    The debates also offer an occasion for the American people to see the candidates, especially the challenger who is lesser known, up close and personal.

    This experience can be important for an electorate that tends to be detached from the political realm.

    And while the debates have been historically insignificant, with such a close race, it is clear that both President Obama and Romney have a case they must make to the American people. The first debate tends to be the most watched according to Nielson ratings, making tonight possibly one of the most important nights of the election season, even if it doesn’t affect the outcome on Nov. 6.

    Kelly Delaney is an intern at the Yankee Institute. She is currently working toward a doctorate in political science with a concentration in American politics and international relations from the University of Connecticut. She lives in West Hartford.