I noted earlier today that the debates are not going to matter, in the sense that they are unlikely to affect the outcome. But there are reasons that the debates do matter and are important campaign events. Debates have value in three ways: they are excellent rituals of democracy; they inform partisans; and they are exercises in representation.
First of all, debates are excellent celebrations of democracy. Indeed, in a nation which sometimes seems sadly inclined to see itself in terms of its military, it’s nice to have at least one major set of events which are simply a celebration of self-government. Just as the conventions are welcome rituals of partisanship, the debates are worthwhile, if nothing else, as symbols of a free people choosing their own destiny.
But they do more than that. Debates are useful exercises in civic education — in partisan civic education. Rather than contests in which informed, open-minded voters can choose between two presentations of public policy preferences, debates are more likely to afford moderately attentive partisans who only care about one or two issues a chance to learn what their party’s position is on everything else. That’s a good thing!
It’s hard for most people to keep up with politics; the fact that an issue is raised in a presidential debate is a good cue that it’s important. Remember, most low-information voters aren’t going to watch the debates, but there are a lot of people who do believe that politics is important but for whatever reason only tune in occasionally. Whatever their reasons for supporting one party, whether it’s something they inherited with their religion or ethnicity or cultural heritage or whether it’s based on passionate convictions about one or two policies, odds are they don’t keep up with everything else. Debates give them a chance to do that.
The debates also are important because presidents are constrained once in office by the promises they make on the campaign trail, and are most constrained by their most visible promises. That doesn’t mean that campaign promises dictate everything presidents try to do. But history actually shows they do try to honor their promises in most cases, and they are most likely to try (and presumably try harder) if lots of people are aware of what they promised. And a lot of people keep track of what was said during the debates.
So the debates really can matter quite a bit even if they don’t change a single vote. Oh, and one more thing: it can’t hurt that the candidates are forced to actually learn talking points on all those issues. No, it doesn’t force them to talk about them all (it’s easy to duck questions), nor does it reveal who the candidates “really” are. But that’s okay. Even without all of those extravagant claims, the debates still have a worthwhile purpose.