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The Exchange

The Art of the Debate: Do Presidential Debates Influence Voters, and If So, How?

Steven Depolo: Flickr

Before the final presidential face-off on Wednesday, we evaluate the structure and history of debating, from format to questions to the moderator's role.  Also, we look at how debates this election cycle measure up to debates past, and the big question: whether these events actually influence voters.


  • David Trumble - Debate coach at Saint Anselm College
  • Dean Lacy - Professor of Government at Dartmouth College
  • Neil Levesque - Director of the New Hampshire Institute of Politics at Saint Anselm College
  • Lisa Hagan - Campaign reporter for The Hill

Highlights from today's show:

Do presidential debates influence voter opinion? Neil Levesque, director for the NH Institute of Politics, says hey do: 

However, if you track between 2000 and 2008, about 3.5% of people switch their vote because of the debate...so if 3% of people were to switch today or tomorrow, we would see a switch in the dynamic of who would become president.

Dean Lacy, a professor of government and politics, however, points out that a large number of this small margin might not even tune into the debate, and the content of the debate itself might not be as important as other factors. 

The news coverage after the debate is substantial, and there are times when the debate could matter...little things like [body language] can make a difference, but what [the candidates] say, not so much.

David Trumble, a debate coach, says that in history, male debaters were more likely to be seen as passionate and powerful if they did things like raise their voices, or put their hands in the air. Female debaters, however, must use different techniques to appeal to voters, such as remaining collected to demonstrate that they will not be "pushed around."

I would say that [the expectations of men and women on the debate stage] is changing. I notice that in academic debate, you see men becoming less loud, and women becoming unafraid to show their passion.

However, Lisa Hagen, a campaign reporter, points out that Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton has been criticized for a wide range of things that previous presidential candidates were not, including her level of preparation for debates.

She delivered a pretty memorable line at one of the debates [where] she just listed everything she has done while she was Secretary of State...she's trying to combat this notion that is she [not] up to the task and the same thing goes for her health.

Our experts also weigh in on the importance of social media, such as Twitter, on debate and election coverage. Lacy says,

There's nothing now that candidates can do in a debate that social media can't overwhelm, and I think, in the long run, we'll see that debates matter less and less.

The role of the moderator is another aspect of presidential debates that our experts examine. Our listeners are split on whether or not a moderator should be a fact-checker, or a time-keeper, or both. Our experts point out that many news sources offer live fact-checking, including NPR, and that fact-checking also continues long after the debate has aired.

Whether or not to have a live audience at a debate comes up during the show. Levesque cites a 2015 study by the Annenberg Public Policy Center called "Democratizing the Debates," which found that live audience participation can have a detrimental effect on how home viewers perceive debates. 

These audiences in these 2016 events are amazing. It's like these people think they've all turned out for a World Wrestling Federation event...I think [this] is a bigger reflection of the way we see civics as Americans: that it's some sort of sport where anything goes and you can yell at anyone.

Trumble, however, thinks a live audience is essential for a presidential debate:

A good reason to keep the audience is that it brings average people in...I think it's great that people are getting engaged and you get to see the two candidates unfiltered, side by side, [with] nobody from the media telling you that this is what somebody did at their campaign rally today...If it gets people watching, then that's a positive.

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