It’s Time To Accept That Debates Might Not Matter

Politics Features Joe Biden
It’s Time To Accept That Debates Might Not Matter

A new poll from Morning Consult and Politico shows that of 316 Democratic respondents who actually watched the debate, 99 of them, or 31%, thought Elizabeth Warren performed better than her 19 opponents. Bernie Sanders was next at 18%, and Joe Biden came in third at 14%.

Ignoring the stupefying fact that anyone thought Biden’s performance was good (when I listened to the pundits on cable news defending him on Wednesday night, I thought I’d been transported to an alternate universe), let’s examine what exactly these numbers mean. First, the very same indicates that 73% of respondents think debates are “very” or “somewhat” important in determining which candidate they’ll support. Great news for Warren, right?

Wrong. Because the next question we have to ask is, how many actually watched? Each night, only about a third of those surveyed said they tuned in. So right there, we have a contradiction—an overwhelming majority call them important, and an overwhelming majority also don’t watch.


Let’s look at the overall Democratic primary polls, starting with Politico/Morning Consult. The day of the first debate, before it actually aired, here were the rankings:

1. Biden – 33%
2. Sanders – 18%
3. Warren – 14%

By Friday, a couple days after the debates, we had new results:

1. Biden – 32%
2. Sanders – 18%
3. Warren – 15%

And here’s the pecking order from the same poll on Tuesday, Aug. 6, a week later:

1. Biden – 33%
2. Sanders – 19%
3. Warren – 15%

In other words, no discernible change, and that’s reflected in the other national polls as well. Those numbers indicate that regardless of what poll respondents say about how much the debates matter, most of them don’t watch, and the perceived outcome of the debates for those that do doesn’t have any affect on the overall totals.

Back in May, I wrote that Biden had what looked to be an insurmountable primary lead. I cited a Five Thirty Eight piece from Nov. 2016 showing that most voters in America hadn’t changed their minds all year. By late May, the average numbers looked like this:

1. Biden – 34.7%
2. Sanders – 17.7%
3. Warren – 9.8%

Clearly, more people have learned about Warren since then, but even her rise in the polls has not coincided with the debates. The only candidate who experienced a surge that can be directly traced to a debate performance was Kamala Harris, and her support dropped off quickly (and not because of the second debate). In the long-term, there’s no indication that the first two debates have mattered.

As Five Thirty Eight noted, the same could be said of the general election in 2016, and even Bernie Sanders’ rise to challenge Hillary Clinton in the 2016 primary was tied to lack of name recognition and a grassroots campaign, but not to debate performance.

Far be it from me to say this is a bad thing, necessarily—modern debates are gaudy theater filled with gotcha questions and strict time limits that allow for only the most shallow discourse before a moderator begins shouting. Maybe we shouldn’t care about debates.

What’s more frustrating, though, is the stagnancy of the race overall. If Joe Biden can stumble his way through two debates and not lose an iota of support, what could possibly shake things up at this point? A Sanders-Warren unity ticket, in which they combine their powers? Maybe. But beyond desperate gambits like that, or gaffes that are too serious to overlook, it seems we’ve reached a place in the primary where voters have made up their minds. And if you believe that Biden is vulnerable against Trump in a general election, that is very bad news.

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