Millions of television viewers tune into the presidential debates every four years. But how much do the debates actually matter to the outcome of the election? With only a few exceptions, not so much.
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Presidential debates have rarely altered the momentum of a race. Those that did have an impact on an election tended to be marked by a significant mistake in style or substance by one of the candidates.
The 1960 presidential debate between Vice President Richard M. Nixon and U.S. Sen. John F. Kennedy of Massachusetts, for example, was notable for Nixon's sickly appearance on-screen. Also, in 1976, President Gerald Ford slipped up in a gaffe that has become legendary in presidential debate history when he claimed there was "no Soviet domination of Eastern Europe."
Both Nixon and Ford lost their elections.
Presidential debates tend not to alter the races substantially but reaffirm voters' support for one candidate or another. Often, the presidential debates that matter the most tend to be those held in years when there is no incumbent and voters are seeking information about both candidates. In years when there is an incumbent, such as this year, the challenger often receives a bump in the polls just by being on the same stage as the leader of the free world.
So what can we expect from the 2012 presidential debates? We've written before that the debates might be Republican Mitt Romney's last chance to close the gap between himself and President Barack Obama, who leads in most if not all battleground-state polls going into the first debate. Obama continues to lead by several percentage points in national popular-vote polls.
But here's an interesting new survey out today from National Public Radio: More than 80 percent of respondents told NPR they planned to watch the first debate, and - get this - about 1 in 4 said the debate could influence their vote.
The conventional wisdom is that Romney must shine, or far exceed expectations, in his first debate to stop Obama's momentum with less than five weeks until the Nov. 6 election. Obama, on the other hand, might be able to call it a win if he escapes without committing any uncharacteristic stylistic or substance mistakes.
Even if both men come out of the presidential debates unscathed, how much will it matter this year?