If you're a Romney partisan, and you've seen Barack Obama move ahead in the polls over the last couple of weeks, you may be saying to yourself, "Maybe the debates can save him." After all, the four debates (three presidential, one VP) are the the only planned events between now and Election Day. Though you never know what kind of unexpected events might occur, tens of millions of voters will be watching. And so many times in the past, the race has been transformed by a dramatic debate moment.
Except that's actually not true. As John Sides lays out quite well, after all the sound and fury, debates almost never change the trajectory of a race. Of course, something never happens up until the moment that it happens, but there's strong reason to believe that the debates will change nothing this year in particular. But before I get to that, here's Sides:
Why are presidential debates so often inconsequential? After all, many voters do pay attention. Debates routinely attract the largest audience of any televised campaign event. And voters do learn new information, according to several academic studies. But this new information is not likely to change many minds. The debates occur late in the campaign, long after the vast majority of voters have arrived at a decision. Moreover, the debates tend to attract viewers who have an abiding interest in politics and are mostly party loyalists. Instead of the debates affecting who they will vote for, their party loyalty affects who they believe won the debates. For example, in a CNN poll after one of the 2008 debates, 85 percent of Democrats thought that Obama had won, but only 16 percent of Republicans agreed.
All those memorable gaffes—George H.W. looking at his watch, Michael Dukakis not pounding his lectern at the suggestion of his wife's rape and murder, Al Gore sighing—turn out not to have had any discernible impact on the elections. What was almost certainly the most disastrous debate performance of all—Dan Quayle's in 1988—did not, you may recall, prevent him from becoming vice president.
And this year is even less likely to produce anything significant. As James Fallows explains, Mitt Romney is at his best when he can prepare carefully, and at his worst when he's taken by surprise. Over the course of the 500 or so primary debates the Republicans held, he was clearly the most informed and serious-seeming of the GOP candidates. Of course, besting Rick Perry and Michele Bachmann in verbal combat doesn't exactly make you the Ted Williams of debating, but there's little doubt Romney will show himself to reasonably knowledgeable, for what it's worth. His problem, though, is that it isn't worth much. He doesn't need to convince Americans he can recite a ten-point plan; he needs to convince them that within him beats the heart of an actual human, one who understands and cares about them. The chances of him doing that are pretty slim.