The Influence is Debatable

The Influence is Debatable

Dawid Cwalinski, December 2016

As the historic, and unprecedented, election of 2016 election comes to a close, it is important to see how each minor detail in a campaign can really build over time to become an advantage or weakness for any of the presidential candidates. These attributes to each campaign influence whether or not the candidate each campaign provides is worthy of your vote, and knowing what can influence, and how to influence the public’s opinion of each election cycle is something each candidate must know to fortify their chances of winning. This is done through advertisements, speeches, campaign rallies, and perhaps the most important of them all, the presidential debates. The televised debates, introduced in the 1960 election with Kennedy debating Nixon, gave a new perspective for the American public of just who they get to vote for are. Hearing about the candidates in their speeches and campaign rallies is one thing, because they are standing unopposed among all their supporters, but on the debate stage, it is a different environment, because your enemy is going to fire back at your points, and being able to maintain level-headedness as well as providing thorough accurate answers can be challenging. Seeing how candidates perform under pressure is a characteristic that is key to the presidency role due to how stressful it is leading a top superpower in the world, and the debates open a new window into how the candidates would hold up under the high pressure situations that come with the presidency.

With 2016 being an election cycle, seeing how the debates influence the younger generation, along with the older ones will be interesting. The previous election cycle’s elections, the 2012 cycle will be used to have a sort of control group to be able to compare how debates influenced between two election cycles. Starting with the 2012 election cycle, the first debate took place on October 3rd, 2012, between Obama and Romney. The polls before the debate showed that Obama had a slight edge over Romney coming into the debate. Obama had a 5 point lead over Romney (50-45) among registered voters before the debate (Sept 30 – Oct 2) [7]. During the debate, Obama was seen to be “confined to a stage he did not want to be on—and viewers saw that immediately” [4]. Obama wasn’t nearly as ready and prepared for the debate as his counterpart, Romney was. With Romney coming into the debate behind in the polls, he was on the offensive, and he was viewed as “very ready and able to be President; that he held strong opinions and beliefs and had the confidence in those opinions and beliefs to challenge President Obama” [12]. After the debate, Romney jumped in the polls to tie Obama nationally (47-47) [7], showing that the debate surely influenced many voters. Romney was declared the winner by 67% of viewers, and “46% of undecided voters said Romney won, compared to 22 percent who said Obama won” [4]. However, it would be a different story with the next two debates. In each of these debates, the winner according to the viewers was Obama. In the second debate, Obama came out with a more offensive approach, as his passive approach that he tried in the first debate was clearly a failure. He “tried to talk right over Mr. Romney, who tried to talk over him back. The president who waited patiently for his turn last time around forced his way into Mr. Romney’s time this time” [3]. With this new tactic, Obama had gathered much more support than the previous debate, with 51% of viewers saying that he had won the debate when compared to the 38% that said Romney won. Among independents, Obama had also beaten Romney by a score of 54-33 points [8]. However, this could all still change when it came to the third debate, now that they had each won a debate according to the public. However, in the final debate, it was also settled by the viewers that Obama had won, with 56% of viewers saying Obama won compared to Romney’s 33%, with also 56% of independents saying he son compared to Romney’s 27%. Romney had settled for a passive approach while Obama had fired shots towards Romney’s “lack of clarity when it came to his vision (or lack thereof) on foreign policy… Obama came across as the more confident and commanding presence, by a lot”, while “Romney clearly decided to play it safe in this debate” [5]. Overall in the three debates, the viewers believed that Romney had a Slight edge, narrowing out Obama by two points (46-44), [6] and polls even had Romney leading Obama in the final days coming to the election, by the slightest of margins. Romney had a one point edge over Obama (49-48) [6]. However, as we all know, this didn’t turn out to be the case when it came to the general election. Obama had won the popular vote by 3 points (51-48), and the Electoral College by 126 points (332-206) [1]. Thus, even though the viewers in whole thought Romney had won the debates it was Obama that won the election, showing that the debates didn’t exactly determine the outcome of the election.

Although we see that debates don’t necessarily predict the winner of an election, the 2016 election is upon us, and we can see the debates to try a make a judgement based on the debates. The 2016 election is between Donald Trump of the Republican Party, and Hillary Clinton of the Democratic Party, and although there are third party candidates, as well in the ballots, they didn’t participate in the debates, which makes them insignificant when it comes to how debates influence elections. Leading up to the first debate, Clinton had a lead over Trump of 2 points (46-44) leading into the debate. The first debate went to Clinton, with an overwhelming 61% of viewers saying she won, compared to Trump’s 27%. Among independents, 59% said Clinton won the debate, compared with 30% that said Trump won [113]. Clinton was “composed and commanding, ticking through her policy prescriptions while landing a series of blows on Donald Trump’s record and readiness” [10]. This led to Clinton showing that she is ready to take on the presidency, and that she has plans in place for what she wants to do. The next debate would be set on similar ground, with Clinton having a two point lead over Trump in the poll (44-42) [15]. Just like the previous debate as well, Clinton won the second debate according to viewers, with 53% of viewers saying she won, compared with the 35% saying Trump won. Clinton also won with the independents, with 52% of them saying she won, and 32% saying Trump won [14]. Clinton had won the debate with her momentum coming into the debate from her last resounding victory over Trump in the first debate, and with this, not committing any glaring errors that would overshadow Trump stumbling on stage. She again showed level headedness in a heated situation, and had placed good attacks on Trump when it was necessary. Lastly, in the 3rd debate and final debate of the election, Clinton was again in the lead, however, this time more resoundingly with a 6 point lead over Trump (50-44)[9]. The debate itself was yet another victory for Clinton, with 60% of viewers saying that Clinton had won the debate, in comparison with 31% of viewers who thought Trump won the debate. She once again had also won the independent vote in similar fashion to the first debate, with 58% of independents saying she won, against 35% of independents saying Trump won. Overall, it is clear that Clinton won each debate, sweeping the floor with numbers that say she won by double digits among overall viewers and independents. Clinton had much more success than Obama when it came to the decisiveness of who won the debates. However, it is important to note that the debates aren’t the only thing that influences public opinion of candidates.

In the 2016 election, Donald Trump won, earning 290 electoral points to Clinton’s 232 electoral points, when only 270 is needed to win the presidency. However, it is important to note that Clinton did win the popular vote across the nation, earning 61,047,207 votes compared to Trump’s 60,375,961 individual votes [2], so technically, more people wanted Clinton to win than Trump, which is also something to consider when looking at the influence of debates. In this way, this election is abnormal, since this does not happen every frequently, and makes it more tricky to determine whether or not As said previously, Clinton was shown to win all three debates by a fair margin in each one, showing poise under pressure and Trump’s relentless attacks, and in a way, the polls reflect this. She did overall win the support of a majority of the people that went out and voted in the US, but she was also unable to convince people in key battleground states to come out and vote for her. If she had just inspired 1% of the population in states like Florida and Wisconsin, she would fare much better in the electoral results. Considering about 80 million people tuned in to watch the debates, people were certainly at least aware of the election, and the issues that divided the two candidates. However, in this election, the debates did not predict the next president in terms of the Electoral College, but they did so in terms of the popular vote, which leaves room for interpretation of whether or not the debates can help determine who will win the election, because by standard means, Trump won the election, but by raw vote count, Clinton won the election. It can be concluded that the debates influence the people that do tune into the debates, but they do not influence the outcome of the election due to the Electoral College system that is in place.

In conclusion, the winners of the debates do not seem to directly translate to the winner of the election. In the 2012 election, although people thought Obama won the last two debates, overall, people believed Romney won the debates. Despite this, Obama managed to win the election. On a similar note this year, Trump managed to lose all three debates and was not considered by the majority of the population to win the debates, however, he won the election, but did lose the popular vote interestingly enough. Using these two most recent examples, how candidates perform in the debates doesn’t reflect who would win the election. Although the 2016 election was unprecedented, and surely many things were considered by the voting populace on who to vote for other than the debates, these debates do not show who would win the election based on the past two election cycles. Debates are still important however, because independents who don’t just stay in party lines need to hear from both candidates about issues that affect their everyday lives, and they need to know who they should vote for in order to try and improve America, as shown in the previous elections, independents can make a big impact in who moves into the White House.


1. 2012 Presidential Race Results. 6 Nov. 2012. Raw data. United States, n.p.
2. 2016 Presidential Election Results. 14 Nov. 2016. Raw data. N.p.
3. Baker, Peter. “For the President, Punch, Punch, Another Punch.” Ny Times. N.p., 17 Oct. 2012. Web. 30 Oct. 2016.
4. Blake, Aaron. “Six Reasons Mitt Romney Won the First Debate.” Washington Post. The Washington Post, 4 Oct. 2012. Web. 30 Oct. 2016.
5. Cilliza, Christ. “Winners and Losers from the Final Presidential Debate.” Washington Post. The Washington Post, 22 Oct. 2012. Web. 30 Oct. 2016.
6. Gallup, Editors. “Romney 49%, Obama 48% in Gallup’s Final Election Survey.” N.p., 2012. Web. 30 Oct. 2016.
7. Jones, Jeffrey M. “Romney Narrows Vote Gap After Historic Debate Win.” Gallup, 08 Oct. 2012. Web. 30 Oct. 2016.
8. Jones, Jeffrey M. “Obama Judged Winner of Second Debate.” N.p., 19 Oct. 2012. Web. 30 Oct. 2016.
9. Keeton-Olsen, Danielle. “Clinton Leads By Six Points In New National Poll Before Final Debate.” TPM. N.p., 2016. Web. 30 Oct. 2016.
10. Newmyer, Tory. “Who Won the First Presidential Debate?” Fortune Who Won the First Presidential Debate Comments. N.p., 2016. Web. 30 Oct. 2016.
11. Newport, Frank. “Viewers Deem Obama Winner of Third Debate, 56% to 33%.” N.p., 25 Oct. 2012. Web. 30 Oct. 2016.
12. Reston, Maeve. “When Romney Trounced Obama.” CNN. Cable News Network, 26 Sept. 2016. Web. 30 Oct. 2016.
13. Saad, Lydia. “Clinton’s Victory on the Larger Side for Modern Debates.” N.p., 29 Sept. 2016. Web. 30 Oct. 2016.
14. Saad, Lydia. “Viewers Say Clinton Wins Second Debate.” N.p., 13 Oct. 2016. Web. 30 Oct. 2016.
15. Shepard, Steven. “Poll: Clinton Has Narrow Lead before Second Debate.” POLITICO. N.p., 10 Oct. 2016. Web. 30 Oct. 2016.

Further Reading

Chinni, Dante. “Do Presidential Debates Impact Election Outcomes?” NBC News. NBC, 25 Sept. 2016. Web. 14 Nov. 2016. .
PM, March 24 20163:30, March 24 20161:54 PM, March 24 201611:30 AM, 2016 November 8, November 8 20163:27 PM, November 10 20165:54 PM, November 7 20166:09 PM, and November 7 201611:52 AM. “Do Presidential Debates Really Matter?” Washington Monthly. N.p., 05 July 2016. Web. 15 Nov. 2016. .

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