Neal Milner: Debates Are Rarely Game-Changers. Why Do We Still Have Them? - Honolulu Civil Beat

About the Author

Neal Milner

Neal Milner is a former political science professor at the University of Hawaii where he taught for 40 years. He is a political analyst for KITV and is a regular contributor to Hawaii Public Radio's "The Conversation." His most recent book is The Gift of Underpants. Opinions are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Civil Beat's views.

Candidate debates are the drama queens of political campaigns. They are so overhyped.

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People talk about them “swaying the voters” as if the process is like the Dean Martin song: “When marimba rhythms start to play, dance with me, make me sway.”

Muy elegante but muy misleading.

The research shows that debates change few voters’ minds and that debates are almost never game-changers. (Much of this research is about presidential debates, but much of it applies more generally.)

In the rare cases where debates are game-changers, it has more to do with simple arithmetic than sexy dancing and sultry violins. In close races, it takes just a little to change the game. If the margins aren’t close, give it up as far as the debates are concerned.

With that in mind, consider the 2022 Hawaii primary debates. Then I’ll return to the hype itself — why we put debates onto more of a pedestal than they deserve and the very serious costs of doing so.

Overall, why don’t debates sway voters? Most voters who watch them have already made up their minds and don’t change.  They tend to adjust what they hear to make it consistent with their existing views.

The ones who do change their minds after the debate typically do so for other reasons.

In the typical presidential election year, you can predict where the race will stand after the debates by knowing the state of the race before the debates.

Debates may be highly visible, but they are only a tiny, brief and typically less important part of a political campaign.

Gubernatorial Candidates Colleen Hanabusa Gov David Ige debate held at the Kamehameha Schools Kapalama campus.
Gubernatorial candidates Colleen Hanabusa and incumbent David Ige debated each other during the 2018 campaign. But most voters who watch debates have already made up their minds. Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2018

Primaries, however, are a little different because the voters can’t rely on political party as an easy powerful cue. In Hawaii’s upcoming primary, Republicans are choosing from Republicans only. Same with the Democrats.

In that case, debates are somewhat more likely to make a difference because what the debating candidates say about themselves is more important because they fill in the blank that party choice creates.

Basic Arithmetic

All true, but there is an additional simple but absolutely important way to think about the effect of debates. It’s called arithmetic, basically adding and subtracting.

If a candidate is, say, one percentage point behind in a race, a debate has a better chance of being a game-changer than if a candidate is, I don’t know, 30 points behind. A whole lot better.

The Democratic lieutenant governor’s contest might be an exception to the debate-overhype rule.

Because all the candidates are Democrats, voters must figure out other ways to tell the differences among them.

Good luck, though. Ideologically, they appear more alike than different. There is nothing wrong with this. I am simply saying that nothing jumps out either good or bad, and their debates reflect this.

What few polls we have indicate that no LG candidate is definitively in the lead. They are bunched.

Because of this the LG debates might change the game because the number of votes needed to make it happen for one candidate is relatively small.

But it’s sure not obvious what these distinctions are and, more important, whether they have legs.

The Democratic governor’s race and thus the Democratic governor debates are quite the opposite. Every indication is that Lt. Gov. Josh Green has cemented and even increased his lead. In the recent Civil Beat/HNN poll Green had 48% of the vote, while U.S. Rep. Kai Kahele got 16% and businesswoman Vicky Cayetano 15%.

Do the math. Imagine the size of game changing necessary to move that needle in the short time left before the Aug. 13 primary and with much less money than the front-runner and in Kahele’s case chump campaign change.

So, no way the debates are going to have the effect necessary to change this. Do you think Cayetano just loaned her campaign funds over a million dollars so she can afford to hire a primo debate coach?

Debate-wise, time’s up. Any further Democratic governor debates are just rituals. More about rituals later.

The Republican governor debates are weird because the basic arithmetic is still in flux for a puzzling reason, which is that BJ Penn, the candidate who is most likely to be a game-changer, has chosen to sit out the debate game so far.

Here’s the latest result from that same poll: Duke Aiona leads with 27%, skunking Heidi Tsuneyoshi (9%). But Penn, who had 24%, is almost even with Aiona.

Among all the candidates from either party, Penn would most benefit from being in a debate. But he has avoided them. Penn is different from the other GOP candidates, more disruptive, more populist.

He has a shot, is used to being in the public eye, but is new to politics and needs to convince voters that he is serious and that his emotions are their emotions.

Another Political Ritual

A showman with a different message that taps into sentiments many have. I’m no Tom Moffatt, but that sounds like potential TV star power.

Or maybe not, but it’s worth the chance — and the possibility that the final debates could make a difference. Without Penn any remaining Republican debates will be insignificantly ho hum.

So, why the hype about debates? Why do they get more attention and more drama than they deserve?

First, they are low-hanging fruit — easy for the media to cover, certainly much easier than looking more closely at day-to-day campaigning and other less visible but arguably more important actions that affect a campaign.

Second, debates have become the equivalent of sign waving in Hawaii. It is something the candidates do because they may be criticized if they don’t and because who knows, it may work.

Third, and more seriously, debates have become a tradition, a ritualized part of American politics. Like all traditions, they may have started as something instrumental and impactful but over time have developed a life of their own, becoming a given, an accepted, stable entity based a little bit on the past and a lot on the dreams of a better future.

Fourth, this belief in the power and necessity of debates reflects a wistfulness for bygone (or imagined bygone) years when politics were more rational, and people could persuade one another to change their minds grounded on facts and reason.

You know, the Lincoln-Douglas debates.

That’s not the way our world works any more, if it ever did. Who needs another misleading political ritual?

Political debates are a bad model because they mythologize a fantasy world. That’s why those who study debates are so cautious and critical about their effects on democracy.

Really, people have a great deal of trouble evaluating two competing assertions of facts. Confirmation bias makes a debate viewer more likely to interpret information to be consistent with her existing beliefs. Partisans become more partisan.

The polarized hate we have for one another makes it even less likely that we can agree on facts.

But debates are really a reflection of these problems, not a weapon against them.

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About the Author

Neal Milner

Neal Milner is a former political science professor at the University of Hawaii where he taught for 40 years. He is a political analyst for KITV and is a regular contributor to Hawaii Public Radio's "The Conversation." His most recent book is The Gift of Underpants. Opinions are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Civil Beat's views.

Latest Comments (0)

Debates are priceless because they are pretty much the only chance we get to see candidates speak without notes or a teleprompter. Ditto in-person talk stories. What good is a politician who is not able to think on their feet?

Chiquita · 1 year ago

I agree that at the federal level primary elections are useless. For state and local primary elections I think they're important since there's less information available about the candidates. Although I prefer long individual interviews to debates that often devolve into pointless mudslinging.

cs808 · 1 year ago

Remember the Nixon/Kennedy debate and how poorly Nixon appeared on what was (I believe) the first televised debate. According to polls at that time, it was a turning point in that campaign. But then, times were different back then.

sp2012 · 1 year ago

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