Did the first debate change votes?

Let’s stipulate that Mitt Romney was more aggressive and crisp than President Obama in the first debate. Snap polls show more people think Romney won.

But did the debate change votes? Did it further Romney’s effort to win the presidency?

As I wrote before the debate, past experience shows that debates tend not to have much effect on vote choice.

As a data-driven person, my tendency is to wait and see if the debate had an impact and how much it matters.

But until we have new data, keep this in mind:

People come into debates with pre-existing views and tend not to change them. Romney and Obama have images developed over many months or years, which were created by experiences seeing them act and speak and by ads and commentary.

Moreover, we have a very fast-moving media environment. New ads and new communications will quickly flood in and influence people.

Fact-checkers are one part of that media environment, a factor that clearly undermined Paul Ryan after his convention speech.

And the first fact-check roundup I’ve seen is titled, “Romney Goes On Offense, Pays For It In First Wave Of Fact Checks.” It reports more and more substantial errors from the challenger. Romney mischaracterized his own tax plan as well as other policies.

Coverage immediately after debates focuses more on the debate as an event while later coverage focuses on what people said.

Pundits have a tendency to grade debates as sporting events. But that’s not how they work.  What happens after the candidates leave matters — a lot — as do the attitudes and policy views that those who watch the event came in with.

Addition: How much do debates usually matter to vote choice? According to Professor Sam Wang of Princeton, “On average, the net benefit to Romney from undecideds will be 0.3 +/-1.1%. If he matched the largest recorded break (3:1 for the challenger), he would gain 2.5% of margin.” See also the chart and links in my last post.

Addition 2: Here’s another take by political scientist John Sides:

The political scientist Joe Cera looked at the first debate in 2000—one that appears to have moved the polls, as I noted in my piece.  Using a large panel of respondents interviewed before and after the debate, he shows that Bush gained about 3 points, all of which were taken from the pool of undecided voters.  The undecideds shrank from 12% to 9%. 2000 is a useful comparison because roughly similar fractions of people thought Bush had won—57%—as thought Romney won (57% is about what you get averaging the CBS and CNN polls above—with the caveat that they were sampling from different populations).

So let’s assume that the same fraction of undecided voters shift in Romney’s direction as shifted in Bush’s direction.  In 2000, that was 25% of undecideds (3/12=.25).  In 2012, the proportion of undecideds is about 5%.  So 25% of 5% is 1.25 points—about what I predicted last night.  It could end up being a bit more, if you think that Obama has been out-performing the fundamentals of the race, and thus we were due for a course correction.

But if that estimate proves correct—or at least close to it—then as Drew Linzer points out, that’s not enough.  Romney needs to run the table in the subsequent debates, and enjoy favorable news coverage besides (i.e., no more 47% videos).  I tend to doubt that Romney can win the other debates by this same margin.  One of the reasons that the candidates typically fight to a draw in the debates as a whole is that they can often rebound from bad performances with better performances—e.g., Reagan in the second debate of 1984.  We will see.


Amy Fried

About Amy Fried

Amy Fried loves Maine's sense of community and the wonderful mix of culture and outdoor recreation. She loves politics in three ways: as an analytical political scientist, a devoted political junkie and a citizen who believes politics matters for people's lives. Fried is Professor of Political Science at the University of Maine. Her views do not reflect those of her employer or any group to which she belongs.