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Nearly 100-million will watch but experts expect few minds to change

Published: Sep. 29, 2020 at 2:29 PM EDT
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WASHINGTON (Gray DC) - With parts of the country already voting, Tuesday night, the presidential candidates debate each other for the first time. The event is sure to create headlines and drama but academic experts say you shouldn’t expect for it to change minds.

Whether it’s President Ronald Reagan declaring, “there you go again”, in 1984, or Al Gore’s sighs in his debate with President George W. Bush -- debate moments stick in our nation’s collective memory even decades after the race.

But Columbia University Political Science Prof. Robert Erikson said most debate performances – good or bad -- barely register in the polls. “Most people are watching debates to root for their team,” he said, “if your team loses, you’re still going to root for that team, you’re not going to change sides.”

When debates do shift the polls, Erikson said 60 years of data reveal changes are only temporary. But this year, a brief seesaw could carry more weight, as voters drop off ballots early.

“They won’t be waiting until election day when the effect of that debate has subsided,” Erikson said.

The other potential pandemic effect: viewers crave substance during a crisis, according to experts like LSU Communications Professor Ray Pingree.

Debates can offer detail-driven dialogue, not just competing soundbytes. “That’s potentially wonderful, but it’s also, for a citizen, like drinking from a firehose,” Pingree said.

Pingree’s research suggests talking heads and so-called horse-race coverage not only shape voters' views of the ‘winner’, but decreases their faith in politics and what they actually know about the issues.

He said voters may already know how they’re voting – but the media still ought to offer context, and analyze policy rather than strategy.

“The potential of debates is to get everyone thinking about what we should do as a country and not just focusing on politics as a game,” he said.

Experts said while they may not shape how the country votes, relevant debates are critical for our democracy.

We do know the outlines of what will be discussed on-stage tonight.

The topics are:

- The Trump and Biden Records

- The Supreme Court

- Covid-19

- The Economy

- Race and Violence in our Cities

- The Integrity of the Election

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