Why Thursday's Debate Matters (But Most Don't)
“I was thinking of setting myself on fire” -- that’s how former Mitt Romney strategist Stuart Stevens felt in January 2012. His candidate was in the midst of a marathon of primary debates and he despaired at the draining, repetitive nature of the events, saying they had a “‘Groundhog Day’ quality” to them.
Stevens’ despair about that campaign cycle’s torturously repetitious series of debates highlights a simple but oft-forgotten fact about these events: Candidates may put a lot of effort into preparing for debates, but they don’t usually move the polls. There were 20 Republican presidential primary debates in 2011 and 2012, and even the most knowledgeable political junkies can probably only name a handful of memorable moments from them.
But despite the relative boringness of those debates, there is significant anticipation surrounding Thursday’s inaugural GOP face-off. The sheer amount of media coverage related to who made it onto the prime-time stage, how candidates are or aren’t preparing and what to expect from Donald Trump suggests that this gathering won’t be the snooze that many past debates were. That raises a simple question – what accounts for the difference?
My take is that information makes the difference. Specifically, the 2012 debates failed to move the polls because they typically didn’t provide much new information on candidates, while Thursday’s event could provide a significant amount of new information to the party elite, the media and rank-and-file primary voters.
The 2012 Debates Didn’t Move the Polls
In 2011 and 2012, the Republican primary debates simply did not move the polls. To determine this, I calculated the difference between each candidate’s RCP average on the day of the debate and seven days after for every debate each candidate participated in. The results indicate that in most weeks following a debate, most candidates did not see a big uptick or drop in their RCP polling average. (To view a histogram demonstrating this, click here.)
Additionally, there wasn’t much difference between how much a debate and a typical week on the campaign trail changed polling numbers. To determine this, I calculated the difference between each candidate’s RCP average on every day after early April 2011 and their average seven days later. The mean was -0.24 (it was 0.41 for the post-debate weeks) and the standard deviation was 2.21 (2.47 in post-debate weeks). While debates on average moved candidates in a slightly positive direction and average weeks spent campaigning did the opposite, the magnitude of these changes was small. In other words, on average, debates changed a candidate’s standing in the polls about as much as a week on the campaign trail did.
Candidates were often unable to move polls through debates partially because those debates revealed relatively little new information about them. If Mitt Romney looked wooden on stage or Rick Santorum invoked the culture war, voters and journalists didn’t bat an eyelash. These candidates, their positions and personalities were, in many cases, known quantities at the time of the debate. In a few rare cases, candidates used good performances in debates to earn a second look from voters and the media. Both of former House Speaker Newt Gingrich’s moments in the sun were fueled at least partially by good debate performances. But the other candidates who surged to the front – Michele Bachmann, Herman Cain, Santorum, Rick Perry – typically began their ascent by performing well or getting media attention at a non-debate event. And when those candidates fell out of favor with the party, it was usually not a debate that did them in (not even in the case of Perry’s “oops” moment).
But Thursday’s Debate Could Change Things – and That Matters
While the 2012 debates didn’t provide voters with new information, Thursday’s gathering promises to provide information to three key groups – the party elite, the media and voters.
First, this debate will be an important part of the “invisible primary.” There are lots of good articles and books out there on the invisible primary, but here are the basics: In the invisible primary, “party elite” (defined broadly as anyone who uses their time, money or influence to advocate for their preferred candidate – which means everyone from Iowa door-knockers to governors of key primary states) attempt to reach consensus on which candidate to support. These party actors then use their resources and influence to give their preferred candidate a boost before primary voters head to the polls in Iowa and New Hampshire. The party elite are not all-powerful – candidates who have won the invisible primary have gone on to lose or nearly lose the nomination, and sometimes the party is too fractured to give any candidate a clear invisible primary win – but the support of these elite actors does seem to matter.
Right now the invisible Republican primary is completely unsettled, and the party elite cannot be happy about Donald Trump’s recent success in the polls. Much of the GOP elite tend to gravitate towards candidates who share their ideology, have a good record of advocating for that ideology in public office and are plausible general election candidates. It would be an understatement to say that Trump fails to meet these requirements. The Donald has never held political office, he donated to Hillary Clinton throughout the 2000s, has flipped his position on health care, abortion and taxes, fares much worse than his fellow Republicans in hypothetical general election match-ups – I could go on, but the point is clear. There are large, powerful elements of the Republican Party with a keen interest in finding a candidate who can at least stop Trump in his tracks, if not go on to win the nomination and the presidency. And Thursday’s debate is one of the party’s first good opportunities to scout out the field for such a contender.
Second, this debate will have an impact on media coverage of the candidates. Specifically, candidates have an opportunity to get good or bad press or to kick off a media-wide “discovery” of a candidate or “scrutiny” of Trump. The first possibility here is fairly straightforward. If one of the well-known and serious candidates – say, former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush or Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker – performs especially well or poorly in the debate, then they could earn favorable or unfavorable press that changes their standing in the polls.
The second and third possibilities – a candidate is “discovered” or “scrutinized” – are much more interesting. The terminology here comes from “The Gamble” – an excellent book on the 2012 election by George Washington University Professor John Sides and UCLA Professor Lynn Vavreck. Sides and Vavreck studied the 2012 Republican primary and found that many of the candidates who enjoyed a brief moment atop the polls did so because of a media “discovery, scrutiny and decline” pattern. In the discovery phase, a relatively unknown candidate does something that attracts the attention of journalists (e.g. Herman Cain winning the Florida Straw Poll). These journalists become fascinated with that candidate, write a ream of stories about him or her (often neutral-to-positive in tone) and as a result that candidate rises in the polls. These same journalists then write positive stories about that candidate’s rise, and the candidate rockets to an even higher position. Thursday’s debate could focus the media’s attention on a new candidate. For example, if Ohio Gov. John Kasich has a breakout performance in the main debate or if Carly Fiorina dominates the second-tier candidate debate earlier in the evening, the media could “discover” them and cause a subsequent rise in the polls. Of course, this might not happen, but a good debate performance provides a plausible springboard for a media-fueled poll bounce.
It’s also possible that this debate kicks off the “scrutiny” phase of Trump’s candidacy. According to Sides and Vavreck, scrutiny happens after the candidate has had some time atop the polls and journalists decide to really dig into their public record and personal history. Right now Trump is firmly in the discovery phase of his candidacy. The media are still treating him as more of a celebrity than a candidate, so his policy positions and his past are getting less attention than his performance in the latest poll or his most recent bombastic statement. If the media and party establishment begin to scrutinize Trump in the way they would any other politician, it may lead to bad press and a related drop in his poll numbers – the beginning of the “decline” in Sides and Vavreck’s process.
That’s not to say that Trump will definitely be scrutinized after the debate. And the scrutiny may have a muted or delayed effect – part of Trump’s appeal is his aggression towards the mainstream media and political establishment. But it is possible that the debate marks a turning point in how Trump is viewed – and if that’s the case, then it has potentially huge consequences.
Third, and perhaps most importantly, many voters will be really introduced to these candidates for the first time. While the party and the media play a large role in influencing voters, voters themselves matter the most. There are a massive number of ways any one candidate could leverage the debate to speak to his or her desired coalition in a persuasive way, so it’s harder to play these scenarios out. But if a candidate manages to speak clearly, directly and persuasively to their coalition through this debate, that could really make a difference.