8 Questions

Dan Balz on what to expect
in the presidential debates

Question 3: Can any debate really change a presidential race?

There are lots of examples of debates that changed the race. So for Romney, the opportunity is there to come out of the first debate with perceptions changed.

Ronald Reagan lost his train of thought in his closing statement in the first debate in 1984, giving Walter Mondale an opening. Al Gore’s sighing in the first debate against GOP nominee George W. Bush in 2000 changed perceptions of that race. John Kerry got a head of steam after out-dueling Bush in the first debate in 2004.

Whether debates really change elections is a different question. On this, there are conflicting opinions.

Some analysts say debates can affect the outcome. The best example may be those first televised debates between John F. Kennedy and Richard M. Nixon, in which Kennedy won on style. That may have been enough to tip one of the closest elections in history in his direction.

But many other analysts say debates may change things temporarily but don’t really alter the race in the end. They note that Mondale went on to lose by the biggest electoral margin in history, that Kerry had a series of good debate performances but still ended up losing.

“Debates only sometimes move the polls, and they rarely, if ever, decide the winner of a presidential race,” said John Sides, an associate professor of political science at George Washington University.

Still, in any close election, which both sides expect this one to be, everything can matter — television ads, turnout machinery — even debates.