BLOG: Why the Presidential Debate Series Mattered this Cycle

Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton and Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump walk to their podiums to start the presidential debate at Hofstra University in Hempstead, N.Y., Monday, Sept. 26, 2016. (Joe Raedle/Pool via AP)
Monday, Oct 24, 2016 at 2:15 pm by Josh Carney

The 2016 Presidential debate series was one of the most consequential we have ever seen. Historically, Presidential debates do not significantly sway polling. In especially tight races, the debates can have a much stronger impact. In a year where the debate series was initially cast as an incoming black eye to American morale, the three matchups actually proved to be productive. The debates were less policy driven, and more stylistically critiqued, but these circumstances still had a substantial impact on polling after the events. In an election year where at some times the unwritten rule book of behavioral tendencies has been thrown out, these debates have existed as an approachable standard for which undecided voters can examine the choice to be made.

Trump lost all three debates. Clinton came into all three debates with the advantage and left with it too. She had a 3.1-point advantage on the eve of the first debate, 4.6 on the eve of the second and 7.1 on the eve of the third. According to the Real Clear Politics Poll Average, Clinton exited with an advantage after all three debates, even increasing her lead after the Town Hall event. The gaffes, bait, October surprises and general scandals factored into these numbers as well. However, it’s important to recognize how unprecedented such shifts are. Seldom do margins drastically change as a result of the debates. Exit polling verifies that Clinton has been able to build her lead from a margin of 2.4 points the day after the first debate to 6.4 points by the day after the third debate.

The lasting impact of these impressions will be what voters saw in the first, drew from the second and heard from the third debate. The first debate put both candidates under a microscope, did away with soft opportunities to stump and actually pried at their opinions on issues. Trump was on offense and employed a temperament that was disruptive and easily baited, and Clinton was able to chip away at her opponent. The second debate was all up to the audience to infer their determination. Yes, Trump stopped the bleeding momentarily in light of the now infamous Access Hollywood tape; where he claims he can get away with sexual assault. Yes, he made Clinton delve deep into the issue of her emails, and dug-in on the Clinton Foundation’s pay-for-play allegations. However, his delivery and temperament looked weak and immature in a town hall format, which allowed Clinton to still walk away with a substantial margin. The third and final debate highlighted how Trump is unwilling to commit to the principle of endorsing his opponent in the face of defeat, and for the peaceful transition of power. Clinton steamrolled Trump in many regards, but also stepped aside at times to let him destroy his own campaign.

Presidential debates matter, so voters have the opportunity to make such inferences and determine their choice. They are more than a point of exposure, the series offers the public an opportunity to compare and contrast in different formats and on different issues. From event-to-event the topical conversations were rooted in the candidates’ debate performances. Spin, scandal and snide remarks contributed to an aggressive ratings hike in comparison to previous campaigns, proving that the reality TV star knew how to make a splash, but couldn’t find a way to recover without his writers.

NOTE: This article represents the views of the writer and do not necessarily represent the views of CitrusTV, its members, or Syracuse University.