One of the myths I’ve been hearing on TV and from other reliable sources of information – yes, I’m being sarcastic – is that presidential debates generally don’t do much to affect the election.
This is untrue, or at least unproven. Most of the time, polls taken before the debates have looked different the polls taken after the debates. And in few cases, substantially different.
The debates may represent a particularly plump opportunity for Romney, given the complaints about him from voters. Many who are undecided or leaning toward Obama say they feel they are not yet comfortable with Romney or do not know enough about his proposals. With the debates, Romney can change both of these perceptions.
The confusion among the cognoscenti about the value of the debates may center of the contention, which is correct, that the debates have not usually affected the outcome of the race. But this is only because someone was so far ahead that losing the debates didn’t cause them to lose the election, or because winning the debates simply padded their lead.
But the debates did appear to have an affect.
Take a look at this graphic by Gallup of polling before and after debates.
As you can see, the debates may well have won the election for George W. Bush in 2000, Ronald Reagan in 1980, and John F. Kennedy in 1960. And there were significant shifts of opinion in 1976, 2004, and, too a lesser extent, in 1992.
The 2008 election is not included here, but according to the daily averaging of 2008 polls by RealClearPolitics, the debates did not have a major effect that year, increasing Obama’s lead by perhaps a couple of points.
To join the ranks of those who have benefited from the debates, Romney will have to both make himself likable – perhaps by not trying so hard to be likable – and be specific about how his proposals will help all Americans, as well as segments of the population.
A shift of just a few points could bring Romney the presidency.
With the economy in the tank and disorder growing overseas, many voters are looking for another answer. Romney perhaps only needs to provide it.