September 22nd, 2016,
|Editor’s Note: This article is partially an update of a piece we published in 2012 discussing the impact of presidential debates.|
To slightly modify Ronald Reagan’s famous rejoinder to Jimmy Carter in their single debate in 1980 (“There you go again”), here we go again — into the debate season.
There has been at least one televised presidential debate every four years for four decades now. The streak began in 1976. Every four years, the debates seem very important. Whether they are or not is open to, ahem, debate.
Mitt Romney experienced an apparent surge in support after the first debate in 2012. He got a number of positive polls after his strong performance (and President’s Obama’s widely-panned showing). However, as we’ve mentioned before, it seems likely that Romney just re-energized his supporters while Obama’s backers became less enthusiastic, and that created what seemed like movement in the polls when there actually wasn’t much. It’s possible that Hillary Clinton’s poor polls over the past few weeks are representative of a similar phenomenon, and that she can use the debate to give her backers a needed jolt. Or perhaps we’re dealing with an unprecedented phenomenon here and Donald Trump can use the debates to take a national lead.
Clinton needs to persuade younger voters (who are disproportionately liberal) to jump on board instead of backing third-party candidates, and she also needs to pull a few percentage points worth of anti-Trump Republicans toward her. Doing both of those simultaneously might be difficult, if not impossible: Appealing to the young probably means tacking left, while going after moderates and anti-Trump Republicans probably means going to the middle. One advantage for Clinton is that she has much more experience with the issues than Trump does and is far more fluent on policy.
Trump, meanwhile, still has some work to do on unifying the GOP base. The vast majority of Republicans are with him, but there are holdouts, particularly in the wealthy, well-educated suburbs. This speaks to a larger Trump issue: Majorities of the public still don’t believe he’s qualified for the job. With exceptions, Trump has been on modestly better behavior of late, and it’s possible that he’ll seem more presidential so long as he is coherent and doesn’t say anything totally outrageous. Given the intensity of his supporters, he has some room to maneuver to the middle — at least in terms of style, if not substance — without losing his core base. Whether he’s able to do it is another question, and Trump’s lack of policy specificity and knowledge can be a real handicap. We suspect Trump will get graded on a curve by some, though, and his campaign is more about attitude than specific policy details.
While there isn’t an incumbent in this debate, Clinton might as well be, given how long she’s been in the public eye and because she’s effectively running for Obama’s third term. Trump, who is basically playing the role of the challenger, might appear more presidential just by appearing on stage. There’s some evidence that past challengers, like Walter Mondale in 1984, John Kerry in 2004, and Romney in 2012, all were aided by simply sharing a stage with the president (although they all eventually lost to incumbents).
One challenge for Trump, and potentially an advantage for Clinton, is that this is the first time he will be engaged in a one-on-one debate. While he participated in many primary debates, the smallest number of candidates on stage at any of them was four. Meanwhile, Clinton and Bernie Sanders clashed by themselves five times in 2016, and Clinton also faced off against just Obama four times in the 2008 Democratic primary. A major theme of the GOP debates was Trump often escaping harsh criticism because of the mistaken belief among his rivals that they needed to attack each other rather than the frontrunner. At times during the primary debates, Trump disappeared when policy specifics dominated the conversation, taking advantage of the other candidates’ desire to talk to avoid potential flubs. He will not have that luxury in a head-to-head contest. How he handles this reality will be something to watch for.
Both Trump and Clinton will try to make voters afraid of the other, a useful unification tool we’re deeming FOT vs. FOH (“Fear of Trump” versus “Fear of Hillary”).
Looking at polling changes before and after the first presidential debates in the past, the impact of the debates has varied in the immediate aftermath. Table 1 shows two-party polling data from 1960 to 2012 before and after the first debate. The information is based on data collected by Robert Erikson and Christopher Wlezien for The Timeline of Presidential Elections. For easier comparisons across time, the data exclude third-party and independent candidates’ percentages.
Table 1: Two-party presidential polling before and after the first presidential debate, 1960-2012
Notes: Based on an average of the two-party presidential vote in polls in the week before the first debate and the week after. If the second debate fell inside the week after the debate, the period after the first debate was measured up to before the second debate date.
Generally speaking, the polls usually move at least a couple of points in one direction or the other after the first debate. The 1976 meeting between Jimmy Carter and Gerald Ford appears to have significantly influenced the polls. But there is a very large caveat to that data point: There was no polling in the three weeks prior to the debate. Given the trajectory of the 1976 race, it’s very likely that the race had already narrowed before the first debate occurred.
Perhaps the one year where the first debate can be argued as having been consequential is the 1980 edition. But of course that was the only debate between Ronald Reagan and Jimmy Carter, making it unique in presidential contests that have had debates — most have had two or three between the two major-party nominees, with the John F. Kennedy-Richard Nixon race featuring four. And the Reagan-Carter clash happened just one week before Election Day, magnifying its importance. The debate went on to feature two classic debate moments: Reagan’s famous line against Carter that we mentioned above — “There you go again” — and Reagan’s defining question for the American people: “Are you better off than you were four years ago?” The debate is sometimes seen as pivotal in catapulting Reagan ahead of Carter in that election.
But the truth is less dramatic: Reagan was already leading in the race at that time. The 1980 polls are shown in Chart 1, which John Sides of The Monkey Cage created using the Erikson/Wlezien data.
Chart 1: 1980 presidential election polling
Source: The Monkey Cage
As you can see, Reagan took a big lead in the summer and, while the race got much closer in the fall, he really was not trailing going into the debate (this chart uses a combination of public polling as well as private campaign surveys). Considering the circumstances in the 1980 election (-7.9% GDP growth in the second quarter, the Iran Hostage Crisis negotiations falling apart right before Election Day, stagflation, etc.), there was clearly more than a debate working against Carter. Did the debate help Reagan? Probably. But did it single-handedly elect him? Certainly not. Even without a good debate performance, Reagan had so much going for him that year that he likely would have won.
When looking at the pre- and post-debate polls, it’s important to remember that correlation does not necessarily equal causation. In every election there are myriad factors that voters must consider before choosing their candidate, and a debate performance is unlikely to be the first thing on a voter’s mind when he or she enters the voting booth — particularly because, in recent years including this one, the last debate is two weeks before the election.
In their book, Erikson and Wlezien review voter intentions before and after the debates. For the most part, their findings indicate that while the debate period is more volatile than other parts of the fall campaign, these clashes don’t have a dramatic effect on voters’ choices and that conventions are more important than debates in determining the course of elections. They also note that it is unclear whether debates are more impactful than other events in the final stretch of the campaign season.
In the 11 previous elections that have featured televised debates, it seems to us that there were three years when the outcome might have been different if not for the debates: 1960 and 2000 (those elections were so close that it’s possible that any number of factors, including the debates, was decisive in the outcome); and 1976, when Gerald Ford’s “There is no Soviet domination of Eastern Europe” mistake in that year’s second debate arguably stalled his big fall comeback, dooming him to a narrow loss to Carter. (Several decades ago, one of us examined the private campaign polls for President Ford, taken by Robert Teeter during October 1976, and they clearly showed the severe impact that the “free Poland” gaffe had on Ford’s chances.) Erikson and Wlezien, for their part, don’t really believe that Ford’s comments affected the polls. Reasonable minds can disagree on this and, as noted in regards to 1960 and 2000, in a close election, victory or defeat could hinge on any number of developments.
Given the interest in this campaign, we suspect that viewership for the first debate will be quite high, but you probably shouldn’t believe pre or post-debate surveys that indicate the vast majority of voters intend to watch or did watch the debate. A study by Markus Prior of Princeton University noted that self-reported debate audiences are about twice as large as Nielsen estimates, meaning that many people who say they watch the debates actually don’t. Our guess is that many voters know they should watch the debates even though they don’t — so they cover for themselves by equating news reports they see about the debates with actually “watching” them.
Ratings for the first debate have generally declined over the years, mirroring broader trends of declining viewership for most kinds of programming because of increased entertainment options. With hundreds of channels to choose from — not to mention on-demand options — it’s not hard to find alternate viewing. Nevertheless, as Table 2 shows below, Nielsen found that the first debate in 2012 was watched by markedly more people than in 2008, with figures more in line with 2004. Still, whereas the equivalent of half the voting-age population watched the lone 1980 debate, only a little more than a quarter did so in 2012.
Table 2: Nielsen ratings and total viewership for first presidential debate, 1960-2012
Notes: VAP is voting-age population. Viewers and VAP are in millions of persons. Ratings indicate the percentage of households that watched the debate.
Very rarely does our University of Virginia Center for Politics wander into advocacy, but on certain limited subjects we do. Last week, the Center and more than 60 other organizations signed on to a suggested set of debate standards for the candidates, moderators, and audience members produced by the National Institute for Civil Discourse, which was created at the University of Arizona following the fatal shootings in Tucson that severely injured former Rep. Gabrielle Giffords (D) in 2011. You can read the standards here.
Furthermore, there is a special burden on the moderators this year. This election, and particularly the case of Donald Trump, has brought into question the “he said, she said” model of modern campaign journalism, as Peter Beinart recently noted in The Atlantic. Hillary Clinton has made plenty of misstatements and uttered lots of half-truths, but Trump has the record in both categories, according to nonpartisan fact-checkers. We believe that the moderators should not be passive in pushing back on statements from either candidate that are just not true.
September 22nd, 2016,
There are a lot of ways to tell you’re getting old, and one is the realization that you have watched every presidential general election debate in U.S. history.
The saving grace is that the history is short, with TV debates only beginning in 1960. And truth be told, I was just eight years old when Kennedy faced Nixon, and my parents told me I fell asleep during all four debates. But I’ve studied the tapes since and interviewed some of the key individuals involved in those precedent-setting encounters.
The dates were similar in 1960 to the ones chosen for 2016:
Of course, all the early debates were presidential. The vice presidential candidates were barely mentioned in the exchanges, and Lyndon Johnson and Henry Cabot Lodge certainly didn’t have their own forum. This innovation was added in 1976 — after two more vice presidents, LBJ and Gerald Ford, had succeeded to the presidency, underlining the secondary office’s importance.
Almost certainly, the 2016 debates will have a huge audience, just as in 1960. Remarkably, the total estimated audiences for Kennedy and Nixon ranged from 66.4 million in the first debate to 60.4 million at the last one. In November 1960, 68.8 million people cast a ballot, so it’s reasonable to suggest that almost every voter had seen some part of the debates.
Everyone knows the story of how JFK’s tanned, handsome appearance (with full TV make-up) helped him “win” the critical first debate, and how Nixon’s refusal of makeup was a critical miscalculation. This is actually greatly oversimplified. Nixon was sick, had been in the hospital, and had lost a good deal of weight prior to the debate.
Nixon had unwisely disregarded the advice of President Eisenhower, who thought he was foolish to give JFK so much free exposure via the debates. Equally damaging, Nixon had agreed to tackle domestic issues first, saving his forte, foreign policy, for last. Then as now, Democrats usually have the advantage when talk turns to Social Security and the like. Nixon’s decision was based on an incorrect belief by his staff that the audiences would grow over four debates, and that the last debate, being closest to the election, would have the most impact. Suppose the first debate had been about international affairs. Nixon had traveled the world for eight years, and had even debated Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev in Moscow. If Nixon had achieved a convincing edge in the first debate with Kennedy, would he have won the squeaker in November? This “what if” can never be answered.
The 1960 Great Debates were sober, polite, issue-oriented sessions. There were stunningly few barbs, little disrespect shown to one another by the contenders, and hardly any punchy sound bites designed to dominate the headlines. The office of president was taken very seriously in the Cold War era, and gimmicks and hijinks would have been frowned upon. The novelty of these debates and the newness of the television era made both sides cautious.
This year, we’ll be lucky to go five minutes without a memorized bite or nasty attack. Donald Trump will likely launch many broadsides — and some will be highly personal. Hillary Clinton is no shrinking violet and will fire back with the ammunition her team has been accumulating for months.
Trump and Clinton have been practicing their moves with advisers and managers for many weeks. Surprisingly, Nixon did little preparation and believed his career itself was all the training he’d need. Kennedy took the debates very seriously, realizing he’d have to do well as a relative unknown compared to a two-term vice president. Yet even JFK’s practicing was mainly limited to studying arguments and quotes on note cards, just like college debaters of the time did.
In the pages of history there has probably been too much emphasis on Kennedy’s professional makeup and Nixon’s wan appearance. Yes, it mattered, but polls at the time showed Nixon recovering from the setback and effectively tying the contest toward the end thanks to President Eisenhower’s campaigning on his behalf in the final days.
For those of you who would like a bit more detail on the Nixon-Kennedy debates, you might enjoy the following excerpt from my book, The Kennedy Half Century: The Presidency, Assassination, and Lasting Legacy of John F. Kennedy. There were no precedents, and the campaigns were flying blind. Notice how many miscalculations there were. Expectation and reality are usually very different.
Even with over a half-century of experience to draw upon, the well-laid plans of one or both candidates may be upended in 2016, too. That’s one of the reasons we watch.
Excerpt from The Kennedy Half Century on the 1960 debates:
|Kennedy scored even more political points when he debated Vice President Nixon on national television. According to Ted Sorensen, JFK was “amazed” when the vice president agreed to four TV debates. “Nixon was apparently confident that having defeated Khrushchev [in the famous 1959 ‘Kitchen Debate’ in Moscow], he could certainly defeat a young, comparatively unknown United States senator,” Sorensen recalled. Eisenhower advised Nixon to avoid the debates “on the grounds that Nixon was much better known than Kennedy and therefore should not give Kennedy so much free exposure.” Nixon ignored the advice. He had known Jack Kennedy for years and felt certain that he could derail the senator’s campaign. Sorensen and Meyer “Mike” Feldman, another Kennedy campaign adviser, used note cards to train their man. “Mike had prepared a little blue card with Kennedy’s position, Nixon’s position, the positions of the two party platforms, and any votes or comments that either candidate had made,” said Sorensen. Kennedy would either say “I know that one, go on to the next one” or request additional information. On the afternoon of the debate, JFK took a nap. “The story I like to tell is of when they delegated me to go wake him up,” Sorensen recalled. “I opened the door and peeked in and there he was, lights on, sound asleep, covered in note cards.” Kennedy was also glowing with a healthy-looking tan, having practiced with Sorensen on the sun-splashed roof of the hotel.
Still sick from a stint in the hospital after a knee had become badly infected, Nixon refused to wear professional makeup for the debate. But he did allow an aide to slather “Lazy Shave” on his perpetual five o’clock shadow. According to TV debate director Don Hewitt, Sorensen admitted that Kennedy had gone “behind closed doors and out of sight” to receive a “light coat” of makeup.
Rejecting cosmetics wasn’t Nixon’s only mistake. He also agreed to discuss domestic issues during the first debate even though Republicans had traditionally struggled in this area. “Foreign affairs was my strong suit, and I wanted the larger audience for that debate,” the vice president later revealed, blaming his aides for the error. “I thought more people would watch the first one, and that interest would diminish as the novelty of the confrontation wore off. Most of my advisers believed that interest would build as the campaign progressed, and that the last program, nearest election day, would be the most important one. I yielded to their judgment and agreed that in the negotiations to set up the debates I would agree to scheduling the domestic policy debate first and the foreign policy debate last.”
At half past eight on Sept. 26, 1960, Howard K. Smith, a seasoned journalist working for CBS, stared into a camera in a Chicago TV studio and intoned, “Good evening. The television and radio stations of the United States and their affiliated stations are proud to provide facilities for a discussion of issues in the current political campaign by the two major candidates for the presidency. The candidates need no introduction.” An estimated 70 million Americans, approximately equal to the almost 69 million who actually voted in the November election, were watching and listening. Kennedy opened the debate by saying that America’s image abroad depended on sound policies at home. Now was the time to get the country “moving again.”
The ailing Nixon leaned on the podium to ease his knee pain, and he came across as nervous, overly inclined to approve Kennedy’s arguments, and unpresidential in appearance and approach. At one point, Nixon offered an extended “me-too” comment: “The things that Senator Kennedy has said many of us can agree with. There is no question but that we cannot discuss our internal affairs in the United States without recognizing that they have a tremendous bearing on our international position. There is no question but that this nation cannot stand still; because we are in a deadly competition, a competition not only with the men in the Kremlin, but the men in Peking. We’re ahead in this competition, as Senator Kennedy, I think, has implied. But when you’re in a race, the only way to stay ahead is to move ahead. And I subscribe completely to the spirit that Senator Kennedy has expressed tonight, the spirit that the United States should move ahead.”
In Nixon, Americans saw a physically unimposing man on their screens, dressed in a grey suit that faded into the set’s background. The Republican was “half slouched, his ‘Lazy Shave’ powder faintly streaked with sweat, his eyes exaggerated hollows of blackness, his jaw, jowls, and face drooping with strain.” Kennedy, on the other hand, looked healthy and confident. Questions about his youth and inexperience no longer seemed as relevant. The young man from Boston had shown that he could at least hold his own with the vice president of the United States, and maybe best him.
Nixon’s aides did their best to contain the damage. Herbert Klein, the vice president’s campaign press secretary, blamed television for his boss’s ghoulish appearance. “Mr. Nixon is in excellent health and looks good in person,” he explained. Nixon’s own mother didn’t buy it. Shortly after the debates, Hannah Milhous Nixon phoned Rose Mary Woods, Nixon’s secretary, to find out if her son was “feeling all right.” Ironically, JFK’s mother, Rose, who had listened to the debate over the radio, thought that “Nixon was smoother.”
Rose’s and Hannah’s contradictory opinions were shared by many other Americans. According to a survey conducted by Sindlinger and Company, those who saw the debate on TV believed that Kennedy had won the debate; radio listeners arrived at the opposite conclusion. While there is no irrefutable polling or statistical evidence that the Kennedy-Nixon debates had a decisive impact on the election, or even that Kennedy “won” the first debate or the others, reporters following the campaign almost unanimously adopted that point of view. Campaign professionals on both sides cited anecdotes that supported the reporters’ conclusions, and these informal assessments changed the tone of the coverage and perhaps the momentum of the campaign. Whether the pro-Kennedy assessment of the debates originated with the public or the press, there is little question that Kennedy received a perceptible boost. Television sets had replaced radios in many American homes by the time this campaign got under way. In 1960, 88 percent of U.S. households had one or more TV sets, an 11 percent jump from the previous decade.
One debate effect was visible on the campaign trail. Suddenly, everyone wanted to catch a glimpse of America’s first made-for-TV politician. “The size and enthusiasm of [Kennedy’s] crowds increased immensely and immediately” after the first debate. On September 28, 20,000 people greeted JFK’s plane when it touched down in Erie, Pennsylvania, and he had been mobbed the day before by 200,000 Ohioans. Local police had trouble containing the huge crowds. In a precedent that would continue during the Kennedy presidency, Kenny O’Donnell had to “ask police officers not to push or pull Senator Kennedy while attempting to get him through crowds.” O’Donnell explained that although the senator appreciated “the difficulties of officers [handling] crowds,” he preferred that they “merely try to clear the way” rather than rush JFK past friendly voters. More than crowds were moved by the debate. Some skittish Southern Democratic governors were nudged off the fence because they sensed a winner. Ten of the eleven governors, all Democrats, who attended the Southern Governors’ Conference in Hot Springs, Arkansas, signed a telegram congratulating Kennedy for his “superb handling of Mr. Nixon and the issues facing our country.”
Whatever the real political impact in 1960, the Kennedy-Nixon debates became mythical, and they are a sizable part of the Kennedy legacy. Every four years, the story of Kennedy’s “triumph” leads the run-up to the presidential debating season, recycling the flickering images of those dynamic encounters. The contrast between JFK and Nixon on-screen still serves as a warning to politicians who are ill at ease on television. It is no accident that both LBJ and Nixon — two of the more media-awkward presidents — refused to participate in any TV debates in 1964, 1968, and 1972.
September 22nd, 2016,
|Dear Readers: Over the past couple of months, we’ve been running a series on election forecasting models. James E. Campbell, who has been compiling these forecasts for us, offers some concluding thoughts on the series below.
— The Editors
Modern presidential election campaigns generate a massive amount of news. This has never been more true than for this year’s campaign, an especially intense open-seat election campaign conducted with the parties near parity, with both an electorate and party system highly polarized, and with a pair of highly controversial and generally not-well-thought-of contenders. Every twist and turn, real and imagined, is reported and exhaustingly scrutinized. Even dedicated political junkies may feel overwhelmed by the hourly onslaught of election information as the political world churns.
The truth is that the vast amount of information pouring out of campaigns and developed by campaign watchers is of little or no consequence to the election’s outcome. It is noise — distracting and sometimes interesting noise, but nonetheless noise. In this din of information, the important aspects of the elections are often lost or overshadowed. This is where election forecasting models can help refocus attention on what matters, what the election may truly hinge on, what the campaigns may want to work on, and what we should expect in November when the votes are counted.
The modern era of election forecasting began in the mid-1980s. Since then, the number of models has grown (including those outside of academia). Experience has led to some models being tinkered with, some significantly revised, and others junked. Every model is different, but all are based on statistical analyses of how different pre-campaign contexts (“the fundamentals”) have translated into the two-party popular vote divisions in past presidential elections. Each forecast indicates what we should expect the vote to be. None expects perfection. The models themselves are imperfect. They use imperfect data. And then, apart from campaign effects that might be expected by the election’s context, some unexpected developments always make a difference. On occasion, some campaign news is not merely noise. Though imperfect and though accuracy varies from one model to the next and one election to the next, the models overall were quite accurate last time out. In the 2012 election, four of the forecasts were within one percentage point of the vote and another three were within two points.
Beginning in 1996, most of the major political science forecasting models’ predictions have been presented as a group at the American Political Science Association’s national meeting and then published in a journal symposium. PS: Political Science and Politics has been the home to the models since 2004. This year the forecasts were also released on the Crystal Ball. This year’s collection includes nine forecasts of the national two-party popular vote (plus a piece combining different types of forecasts indicating a Clinton win and another reporting a state-level model indicating a dead-heat).
So what do the nine forecasts tell us to expect this year? The range is from a modest Trump victory to a modest Clinton victory, no more than 52.5% to 47.5% either way. Only two of the nine foresee a Trump win. Helmut Norpoth (Stony Brook) combines an early party unity index with an electoral cycle component (a second party-term favors continuity, beyond that favors change) to predict 47.5% for Clinton. Alan Abramowitz (Emory) combines presidential approval, second quarter GDP change, and a “time for a change” party-term index. His model predicts a 48.6% Clinton vote, although he has said that he does not expect his model to be correct this year because of Trump’s candidacy.
Seven of the nine forecasts tilt to Clinton. Based on prospective personal financial outlooks and the number of in-party terms, Brad Lockerbie (East Carolina) sees Clinton with a razor-thin edge (50.4%). Reviving the presidential approval and GNP model from the mid-1980s, Mike Lewis-Beck (Iowa) and Charles Tien (CUNY) expect a 51.1% Clinton vote. My two forecast models land in nearly the same spot. They combine early preference polls (before or around Labor Day) with the second quarter real GDP growth rate. One uses pre-convention polls and the net convention bump and the second uses Labor Day polls. They predict 51% Clinton (51.2% and 50.7%, respectively). Bob Erikson (Columbia) and Chris Wlezien (Texas) use polls before and after the conventions along with an index of leading economic indicators. Their forecasts: 52% Clinton (51.8% in the pre-convention version and 52.0% in the post). Finally, Tom Holbrook (Wisconsin-Milwaukee), using Labor Day polls and an index of national conditions, sets the likely Clinton vote at 52.5%.
Overall, the forecasts see Clinton with a narrow edge. Beyond that, they suggest that the economy and voter fatigue with the in-party are Clinton’s major liabilities, and her opponent may be her biggest asset. Five of the nine forecasts include preference polls, the electorate’s early intentions about the choice between Trump and Clinton. All five tilt to Clinton. Of the four without a preference poll component, two go to Trump, one is a near dead-heat, and only one gives a slim edge to Clinton. The strategic implications are clear for the weeks ahead, most importantly for the upcoming debates. Clinton needs to make the election about Trump and Trump needs to encourage voters to think about their choice retrospectively, to focus on the perceived inability of the in-party to set the nation on the right track to peace and prosperity.
|James E. Campbell has been publicly forecasting presidential elections since 1992. He is a UB Distinguished Professor at the University at Buffalo, SUNY and the author of the new book, Polarized: Making Sense of a Divided America (Princeton, 2016).|
Table 1: Forecasts of the 2016 two-party presidential vote
Note: The Crystal Ball did not run a summary of Tom Holbrook’s forecasting model in its series on electoral forecasting.