Do debates influence elections? Not really.


OCT. 26, 2020 — President Donald Trump and former Vice President Joe Biden faced off at the final presidential debate on Thursday at the Curb Event Center in Nashville, Tennessee. But will the candidates’ performances influence Americans to vote for them? According to research, probably not.

A 2020 study by Harvard Business School said that rather than seeing televised debates directly influence voters, “information continuously received by voters is more impactful.”

According to the same study, “Changes in vote choice are concomitant to shifts in salient issues and beliefs about candidates, while policy preferences remain remarkably stable.”

Western Washington University political science professor Rudy Alamillo agreed that debates don’t tend to do a whole lot in terms of swaying voters to one side or the other.

Alamillo uses a football analogy to help define the purpose of televised debates. Candidates use debates as an opportunity to get their “fans” pumped up and ready to cast their votes, he said. “[A debate’s] most important purpose is to energize voters,” Alamillo said. “You turn out to cheer for your team.”

Thursday night’s debate, moderated by NBC journalist Kristen Welker, covered relevant topics ranging from the coronavirus pandemic to racial unrest in America to climate change. The president and the former vice president disagreed on almost all of the issues discussed, but managed to keep their tempers under control this time around. As a precaution, both candidates’ microphones were muted during the first two minutes of each question.

Jim McKinney, the Trump campaign coordinator of Whatcom Republicans, said the final presidential debate was much calmer and more controlled than the first time Trump and Biden faced off on Sept. 29.

“[Trump] was able to control his temper and not intervene as much, which is probably a small advantage from the previous debate,” McKinney said.

McKinney also said that he thinks the debate will not have much of an effect on any undecided voters.

“I think most of America has already decided which way they’re going,” McKinney said. “I think there’s a very small group of people in the middle that are undecided at this point.”

Will Casey, communications director of the Washington State Democrats, also tuned in to the final presidential debate.

Casey said that this election is unique because there are not too many undecided voters.

“From our perspective, we have been thinking of undecided voters, this particular cycle, not as people who are undecided between the candidates, but they are folks who are undecided about whether they will vote,” Casey said.

In 2016, Pew Research Center reported that even though a recordbreaking number of Americans cast their ballots that year, the turnout rate of black voters fell below that of white voters.

But this year, Alamillo said he predicts Biden will win the election if he can secure enough votes from the black demographic.

“African Americans support Joe Biden,” Alamillo said. “And part of that of course is his relationship with President Obama, but African Americans were solidly behind Joe Biden, even before he added Senator Harris to his ticket.”

Early voting turnout has been recordbreaking in multiple states across the country this election season. Nevertheless, Casey said that during the debate, Biden did a great job of motivating voters to get their ballots turned in.

Alamillo said that for this year especially, there are multiple factors contributing to early voting turnout.

“I think the importance of the election, the environment in terms of everything that’s going on in this country, and people realizing that depending on the state that you live in, it might be really difficult for you to vote are all coming together to create these massive increases in turnout,” Alamillo said.

So, while the final presidential debate may not have changed anyone’s mind about who to vote for this year, the candidates have inspired Americans to get out and vote.