What to Expect in Tonight’s Debate

Associate Professor John Sides discusses whether presidential debates have an effect on the election and how each candidate will argue his case.
October 03, 2012

How much will tonight’s debate affect whether President Barack Obama or former Gov. Mitt Romney is sitting in the White House come January?

Very little, according to George Washington University Associate Professor of Political Science John Sides.

Although political pundits might lead you to believe otherwise, Dr. Sides has the research in his corner: “[S]cholars who have looked most carefully at the data have found that, when it comes to shifting enough votes to decide the outcome of the election, presidential debates have rarely, if ever, mattered,” he wrote recently in a piece in the Washington Monthly.

Why? Because both candidates are briefed and have rehearsed extensively, the debates begin after most voters have already made up their minds and most of the people watching are party loyalists anyway, Dr. Sides writes.

“The debates could certainly affect the polls and perhaps tighten the race,” Dr. Sides told GW Today, noting that in 2004 President George W. Bush found his lead cut from five points to two after the first debate of the season. “But it would be unusual, if not unprecedented, for the debates to propel Romney into the frontrunner position.”

That doesn’t mean the former governor won’t give it his best shot, though. He’ll likely be working to convince America that Obama’s performance has been lackluster, and that he’s “failed as a steward of the economy,” Dr. Sides predicted. Obama, on the other hand, will defend his record, focusing on the differences between his policies and Gov. Romney’s, he added.

As far as debate performance goes, neither of the men necessarily has the upper hand, Dr. Sides said. Historically, candidates are “both articulate and well-prepared, and they tend to fight to a draw.”

Tonight, viewers can expect to hear a lot about the economy, federal taxes and the budget, along with health care, Dr. Sides said.

And while it’s an important week, it’s probably not the most important, Dr. Sides said.

“The party conventions actually tend to have larger effects than does anything that happens during the fall campaign,” he said. “So perhaps the most consequential weeks are already behind us.”

The GW College Democrats and College Republicans in conjunction with Program Board will host a watch party for this and all upcoming debates. Find details here.

Leaders for both groups offered their perspectives on what’s likely to come tonight.

Spencer Dixon, president of College Democrats, said he expects the president will focus on “proven ideas” to build the economy by investing in the middle class, which contrasts with Gov. Romney’s “tired top-down approach.”

Mr. Dixon said he also expects the president to appeal to college students by noting “his accomplishments on student loan and health care reform, as well as his positions on various social issues.”

Sinead Casey, chairwoman for College Republicans, said she believes Gov. Romney will make a “strong case for the most critical issues of our time”—the deficit and the struggling economy.

“This very well could be the most important election of our lives,” Ms. Casey said.

GW Research Blog