Do political debates really influence voter opinion? MSU professor explains

Missouri State professor says research indicates debates tend not to change voter opinions
Published: Oct. 10, 2020 at 10:25 PM CDT
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SPRINGFIELD, Mo. (KY3) - On Friday, the four Missouri gubernatorial candidates went head-to-head in Columbia, Missouri for their first debate. Several hours, later the second presidential debate was officially canceled.

But do debates really influence voter opinions?

One Missouri State University professor said research generally indicates that debates usually do not have a significant impact on voters' decision-making process.

“I think people are there for more information," Missouri State associate professor of political science Kevin Pybas said. "But they don’t get the kind of information that changes their minds.”

Pybas said voters usually tune in to the debates when they are already very passionate about politics, their candidates and the election itself.

“Most people who tune into the debates are motivated and actually interested in politics," he said. "They’re pretty well informed generally. So they’re not blank slates going into that.”

Pybas said people may tune into debates to learn more about their candidate’s policies, which may reinforce their stance.

“It’s not that debates have no value, it’s that their value is not in moving voters' opinion,” he said. “If you’re leaning democrat, it’s rare that you’ll change and vote republican or vice versa.”

Professor Pybas also said deciding who wins a debate is usually very subjective.

“I remember in the first presidential debate in 2016, it was first cut that Hillary Clinton won,” he said. “But it didn’t change people’s minds.”

The nonpartisan Commission on Presidential Debates announced Friday the face-off between President Donald Trump and Joe Biden has been scrapped. On Thursday it announced the debate would be held virtually after the president contracted COVID-19.

The committee called the debate off after President Trump said he did not wish to hold the debate virtually.

Meanwhile, in Missouri the gubernatorial candidates took to the stage on Friday to discuss their policies for the state.

Pybas said this debate likely had even less of an impact on voter opinion. He said the stakes are still very higher during this election, however.

“Elections are usually about the economy," he said. "Who do you trust more with the economy? And access to healthcare. For the last several election cycles healthcare has been a high priority for a number of people too.”

He also said COVID-19 has also likely affected voter beliefs this year.

“I think also on people’s minds is just the pandemic,” Pybas said. “When can people open their businesses and staff their businesses at full employment and things like that.”

Pybas said that over all, the pandemic has had a significant impact on 2020 politics and how races across the country are perceived.

Right now the third presidential debate is still schedule for Oct. 22 in Nashville, Tennessee.

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