Do debates make a difference ahead of Election Day?

Posted at 6:43 AM, Oct 06, 2020
and last updated 2020-10-06 09:43:55-04

Following last week’s debate filled with insults and interruptions between President Donald Trump and former Vice President Joe Biden, some pundits are questioning the need for two more debates before Election Day.

Martha McSally and Mark Kelly are set to take part in their first and only Senate debate on Tuesday night and Vice President Mike Pence will face off against Senator Kamala Harris on Wednesday.

At a time when voters can look up where candidates stand on issues in an instant, do these debates still matter?

“Yes,” according to Arizona State University Professor Brooks Simpson. “Despite all the advertisements and programming and the like, a lot of people don’t tune into politics until the last month or so,” he said. Simpson, a history professor, has studied political ups and downs through the decades and recalls several notable debate moments that had an impact at the ballot box.

“Gerald Ford in 1976, for example, saying Poland was not under Soviet dominance,” as one example. "George Herbert Walker Bush looking at his watch like he was bored…that didn’t help,” Simpson said, citing another example.

According to the RealClearPolitics polling average, ahead of Tuesday’s debate, Democrat Mark Kelly is ahead of incumbent Republican Senator Martha McSally by 6.6 points.

“One thing [the candidates] have to do and, I would say this is especially true for the McSally campaign, give us a reason to vote for you...” Simpson said. “I have a feeling that McSally has not been able to give a positive message.”

In the race for the White House, polling shows only 6% of eligible Arizona voters remain undecided and, given the small margin, both campaigns are fighting for their share of those voters.

“There’ll be an effort to see, how do people react under pressure? Are they quick on their feet? Do they make mistakes? Do they get lost?”

Often, Simpson said, candidates stand out in statements or actions that you can’t anticipate.

“You’re looking for a moment for which you cannot plan,” he said, “Maybe you’ve got some lines prepared but the opening has to come at the right time.”