This article first appeared in University of Utah Magazine.
For nine decades, Kingsbury Hall has been the University of Utah’s center stage, hosting VIPs such as Eleanor Roosevelt, Gerald Ford, Maya Angelou, and Ta-Nehisi Coates. But on October 7, its curtains will open to its biggest audience ever as the 2020 vice presidential candidates square off in their one and only debate. “We predict 100 million people from all over the world to tune in,” says Jason Perry JD’99, director of the U’s Hinckley Institute of Politics. “And hundreds of student volunteers will get experience in the political process that you cannot get any other way.”
And while hosting the first national debate in Utah’s history is a big deal, one might say that every debate and election at every level this year has extraordinarily high stakes. We are, after all, battling a pandemic amid economic and social upheaval. Politicians are making the arguments of their lives, and Americans should be listening closely.
“Debates give voters the opportunity to cut through the campaign rhetoric,” says Nena Slighting BS’86 JD’91, executive director of the Utah Debate Commission. “They get to actually see candidates discussing the most important issues of our time.”
A national debate seems like a critical opportunity for candidates to convince us that they have the ideas and character needed to lead our country, but the golden question is, do debates change people’s minds? In a moment when partisanship holds powerful sway over voter decisions, could anyone be persuaded to shift opinion? And if not, why hold debates at all?
Political science professors and the U’s resident champion debate coach help answer these questions and more as they explain the role of debates, how to measure their impact, and ways we can recognize our own biases.
The partisan pull
“Debates are the most balanced presentation of each candidate’s arguments,” says U associate professor of political science Juliet Carlisle. “In a very polished manner, candidates articulate their platforms, issue positions, and arguments.” This would appear to be the ideal setup for candidates to persuade voters to align with them.
But that’s not how it usually plays out. “Most people are driven by their partisan orientations,” Carlisle explains. “Moving somebody from one camp to another just isn’t likely.”
Surprisingly, even though both major parties are less popular than at any other time in history, party loyalty is actually at a record high. And it’s not just because voters are attached to their party; it’s because they’re increasingly opposed to the other party. Political scientists call this “negative partisanship.”
“People aren’t just saying ‘I like Democrats or Republicans,’ they’re saying ‘I really don’t like the other side,’ ” says U professor Matthew Burbank MS’86, co-author of Parties, Interest Groups, and Political Campaigns. In 2016, for example, many Republicans didn’t vote for Donald Trump, they voted against Hillary Clinton. People take that same negative partisanship with them when they watch debates. “They decide they don’t like this candidate or any candidate from that party,” Burbank adds. “And that’s a hard mindset to change.”
On the flip side, when party lines aren’t drawn, as in primary elections, debates have more of a chance to make a difference at the ballots. “Voters have to figure out which candidate they like without a party label to guide them,” says U political science associate professor James Curry. “This creates more uncertainty for voters, and more opportunity for candidates.”
Meanwhile, campaigns are getting longer, with contenders declaring their bids sometimes two years before an election. “Most voters already have strong opinions about the candidates by the time we get to the general election,” says Curry. “We saw this in 2016, when it was hard to find many people who didn’t have strong opinions about Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump. These are folks who have been in the public eye for a long time.”
But what about the 38 percent of the electorate who are unaffiliated with a major party? Some are disengaged from politics, but if they’re planning to cast a vote, they tend to have their minds made up by this point. “Most voters go into a general election for the presidency preferring one of the major parties to the other, even if they don’t formally identify with either,” Curry says. “A lot of people who call themselves independents still strongly prefer one party.” Only 7 percent of Americans overall don’t express a partisan leaning, according to the Pew Research Center.
Even with all these forces solidifying voters’ opinions, there is still a small percentage who may be swayed by a debate. If a candidate is clearly dominant, the polls can shift by a percentage point or two. “We refer to that as a bump for the winner,” Curry says. The bumps tend to be fleeting, though, usually just for a few days, he notes. “Campaigns move on very quickly to the next event or controversy.”
The real purpose of debates
Despite the evidence that political debates generally don’t change the opinions of the electorate, experts agree that they still play a critical role in choosing our leaders. “Debates are important,” says Burbank, but not because voters are listening to the details on policy positions. “The conventions and the debates tend to be the defining events for most campaigns.” In short, debate performances can change the course of a campaign.
In 2012, when Mitt Romney faced President Barack Obama in their first debate, the incumbent was favored to win easily, but it didn’t unfold that way. “Mitt Romney comes out on top as Obama stumbles in first debate,” reported The Guardian. “Does Barack Obama really want to be president?” asked a Washington Post op-ed. A Gallup poll showed that 72 percent of debate watchers believed Romney was the clear winner, and he jumped ahead in the polls for the first time in his campaign.
The upset had consequences for the campaign. “That kind of debate performance impacts how people generally perceive candidates,” says Burbank. “Romney demonstrated that he could criticize the president and stand there as an equal.” Republicans rallied around Romney after that, and Democrats had to rush to their candidate’s aid. “It changed what happened in subsequent debates,” adds Burbank. Ultimately, Obama stepped up his performance and secured his second term.
“The number one thing presidential campaigns do is remind people why they like their party and their candidate,” emphasizes Curry. In this way, debates are great motivators. “They get people to show up and vote for their party on election day.”
What to look for on stage
You can tell a lot about a person by how they perform in a situation under high pressure and heavy conflict. Just ask grad student Frank Gigray, an assistant coach for the U’s renowned John R. Park Debate Society. Gigray has helped the team win seven first place Overall Sweepstakes trophies over the past year.
“There’s something about being a public figure on stage with someone who is ostensibly grilling you and having to respond to a national audience that is a kind of extreme pressure to perform,” explains Gigray. “There’s a certain value in that stress test.”
Take President Trump’s debate performances in 2016, his displays of antagonistic dominance and refusal to back down, even after fact checks from other candidates and moderators. Gigray says it provided a preview of how he would act as president, particularly on foreign policy. “This is how Donald Trump reacts interpersonally when he is put on the spot, and how he responds to these kinds of pressures,” points out Gigray. “He’s been fairly consistent on how he responds as demonstrated by his debate performance.”
A savvy candidate can use debate questions to craft a coherent, convincing narrative about themselves and their positions. “I want to hear a clear story that I can follow through and understand,” Gigray says. Just like he teaches his debate team, it’s not enough simply to string together facts that support your argument. There will always be facts on the other side of the argument, too. “What does this platform mean as a wider position, and how do each of your arguments fit together?”
In this way, you can learn what candidates are telling you about themselves. “You can extrapolate and say that ‘This candidate is this kind of person, and if they’re in this position, they’ll probably do X, Y, or Z,’ ” adds Gigray. “That’s part of making yourself knowable to the population.”
Declaring a winner
After decades of debates, political scientists have concluded that the most reliable predictor of who comes out on top is what the polls say before the debate occurs. In other words, the audience is looking for confirmation of what they already think. A Democrat and a Republican can watch the same debate and both believe that their side won. “We all see the world through our biases,” says Carlisle. “We have partisan and ideological biases. We also have biases with regard to sex and gender,” which she points out could play an important role in interpreting the performance of the vice-presidential candidates this year. Recognizing these biases and overcoming them is not easy, but Carlisle believes it’s vital. “If we’re not informed, we’re open to manipulation.” If you are overly conﬁdent in your viewpoint, Carlisle says that’s a good sign that you are a victim of conﬁrmation bias—meaning you’ve only been paying attention to information that conﬁrms your point of view.
When watching debates and media coverage, she suggests you challenge yourself to seek out contrary information—to ﬁnd alternative sources and talk to people you trust who have differing perspectives. To do this effectively, though, Carlisle says you have to be open to the idea that it’s possible to have good reasons for contrary viewpoints. “One of the things I talk about in my classes is that people come to politics prioritizing different values,” she says. For example, one side might prioritize freedom over equality. “Debates are often about value choices at the core.”
And while people tend to view debates through the lens of their partisan positions and biases, media can have an influence, too. Studies have shown that the prevailing media narrative or “spin” can change some voters’ impressions of who won a debate.
“The primary purpose of debates in the current media environment is visibility and a ‘win’ for one’s side,” says U communication associate professor Kevin Coe. So how can you be sure you aren’t vulnerable to spin? “It’s useful for people to watch the debate and think about it on their own before reading or viewing any of the subsequent news coverage,” Coe says. “Then, when turning to news coverage, try to look at several sources as opposed to just one.”
On the edge of our seats
Hinckley Institute’s Jason Perry says there are a lot of unknowns going into this fall’s national debates, and that’s part of what makes it so interesting. The 2016 election defied pundits’ predictions, and 2020 is shaping up to be an unusual year, to say the least. “You look at what’s happening with a global pandemic, for example, and you start talking about, what kind of leader do we need in a crisis?” Perry says. “Many people go into these elections having already picked their candidate… but a lot can happen between now and then.”