In some elections, the presidential debates might be a meaningless ritual that does little to change the scope of the campaign.
In this election, the presidential debates will matter. In this election, Mitt Romney has a chance to start a comeback. In this election, President Barack Obama has a chance to cement himself as the probable victor.
That’s because this election is still extremely close. Obama is up just 3 points in the Real Clear Politics average of national polls — 4 points in Wednesday’s Gallup daily tracking poll — and it doesn’t take a major event to swing polls 3 points.
Debates are a major part of the campaign — they can swing the race much more than 3 points. In an NBC/Wall Street Journal poll released Tuesday, 72 percent of respondents said the debates would be at least “somewhat” important in how they vote in November.
According to Gallup, 15 percent of declared Obama or Romney supporters said they could switch their vote, which is a higher percentage of “undecideds” than most polls find. And in a Washington Post poll, 83 percent of voters said they were interested in the debates.
Debates are perhaps the most highly visible part of the campaign, and they give voters a rare, head-to-head look at the candidates.
Moreover, history suggests that debates can play a part in swinging the race one way — or at least firming it up.
In September 2008, Gallup compiled data that suggested presidential debates are “rarely game-changers.” Only two elections, according to Gallup, have been affected by the debates — the 1960 election between Richard Nixon and John F. Kennedy, and the 2000 election between George W. Bush and Al Gore.
Here’s a look at Gallup’s chart:
The 1960 debates are most widely credited with being one of (if not the) turning point in that election — and being the moment when candidates grasped the importance of looking good on television.
Nixon, fresh off a two-week stint in the hospital, showed up underweight and with a 5 o’clock shadow. Kennedy showed up looking tan, rested and ready to go. In the end, more than half of voters said the debates had influenced their vote. An incredible 6 percent said they voted on the debates alone.
No other set of debates has produced that kind of shift. But the 2000 debates helped swing the race 12 points in Bush’s favor.
In 1980, the debates contributed to a 6-point swing in favor of Republican Ronald Reagan against Democratic incumbent Jimmy Carter. Gallup dulls down this effect, because there was only one presidential debate — and only a week before the election.
But since this Reagan quote from the debate is still being cited in today’s campaign, it’s at least arguable that it had some effect:
Even in 2004, the debates appear to have made the race much closer than what it had been. Democrat John Kerry gained 8 points on Bush, and it’s likely his strong debate performances made Election Night so close — even if he didn’t win.
Most of the other races Gallup measures were already decided by the time of the first debate. And in 2008, debates didn’t have as much influence because of more pressing issues — a financial collapse — in September and October.
It’s clear why the debates are so important for both candidates. With Romney down by 4 and in striking distance, he could theoretically shift the race back in his favor. Or Obama could lift it almost completely out of reach.