Candidate debates: Sometimes they matter, sometimes they don’t

Thom Tillis, January 12, 2013.
Thom Tillis, January 12, 2013. Charlotte Observer/MCT

When Ralph McMillan, a lawyer and a Republican in Charlotte, watched the first debate between U.S. Senate candidates Thom Tillis and Kay Hagan on Sept. 3, he already knew he was voting for Tillis.

So why watch?

“I wanted to see if Hagan did something that would make people change their minds,” he said. “Most debates are inconclusive.”

With the final two debates between the Republican House Speaker and the Democratic incumbent coming up this week, it’s worth asking the question: Do debates matter?

The answer is, well, debatable.

If the first encounter between Hagan and Tillis is any guide, the audience is expected to be relatively small. Even so, the hour-long debates – at 7 p.m. Tuesday and Thursday – are the way voters hear summaries of the top issues from the candidates themselves. They also will likely generate news and social media attention, just ahead of the Friday deadline to register to vote. Early voting takes place Oct. 23 to Nov. 1. The election is Nov. 4.

Mike Daisley, an active Democrat Charlotte lawyer who also tuned in to the first debate, said for 90 percent of viewers, debates simply solidify their point of view. But “for the 10 percent who are undecided, it may have some effect, and frankly more effect than the onslaught of TV commercials that just negate each other,” he said.

Alan Schroeder, a journalism professor at Northeastern University in Boston who has written books about televised presidential debates, said they matter in a close Senate races like North Carolina’s, where Hagan has been ahead in the polls, but the race is considered a toss-up.

Many voters aren’t paying a lot of attention to the campaigns until close to Election Day, he said.

“We’re just at that point, even though ads have been running for months,” he said. “People tend to tune all that out. The debate is the condensed version of the campaign overall, and in that sense I think it matters a lot.”

Debates also have an afterlife. Reporters and bloggers write about them, and segments end up on YouTube and in tweets.

Susan Roberts, an associate professor of political science at Davidson College, said Senate debates aren’t likely to draw a lot of undecided voters.

“The politicos, the hardcore partisans are going to be watch, but not the general public to a large extent,” she said.

Audiences also tend to be lower after the first in a series of Senate candidate debates, she added.

Their first televised meeting, on Sept. 3, was carried by more than 30 TV and radio stations and had an audience of more than 300,000 households. North Carolina has 6.6 million registered voters.

The candidates don’t have time to give a lot of explanation when they answer each question, and so debates might not convey a lot of information to those who haven’t been following the campaigns, Roberts said.

“But it’s just like anything else, you want to see how did they perform, how did they handle the question,” she said. “That may be as persuasive to a voter as how they answer the question.”

There’s always speculation before a debate about whether something will happen to make it a game-changer. Every student of political history knows about the sweaty, pale Richard Nixon vs. the calm, tanned John F. Kennedy in the landmark 1960 presidential debate, or more recently, the impatient George H.W. Bush in 1992 and the sighing Al Gore in 2000.

North Carolina has no such history.

Thomas Eamon, who teaches political science at East Carolina University and who wrote a new book about the history of North Carolina politics, “The Making of a Southern Democracy,” said that among the many debates in the state’s history, there hasn’t really been one that turned the outcome of a race.

“They more or less solidified people’s thinking,” he said.

But if there’s a big blunder, even though the audience for the debate might be small, “it’s something that will hit the media and people will be talking a lot about it,” Eamon said.

“There’s always the potential for a debate to be influential. But it’s normally something negative that will have impact,” he said.

Still, debates are a great American tradition, Eamon said. “And even if we don’t have that big an audience and the typical one below the presidential level doesn’t have that much impact, it’s certainly a very good thing for democracy.”