The Real Point of the Presidential Debates
The 2020 Presidential Debates are beginning in America, so prepare yourself for an onslaught of articles about who won, who lied, and who dressed the best. That’s all good entertainment but don’t take it too seriously. Those pieces miss the point of the debates in two key ways.
Undecided voters don’t watch the debates
Debates are mostly watched by political junkies. “High information voters” are likely to tune in; “low information voters” are not.
That matters because undecided and swing voters are disproportionately low-information voters. They’re undecided because they don’t watch the news much and don’t care about politics. That’s why they don’t bother with the debates.
Debates don’t convince anyone
Two grown adults playing at debate club isn’t a good way to decide the fate of the world, so it’s good thing that debates don’t change minds.
Our political positions are (hopefully) based on deep readings of the evidence and our commitment to political ideals. A debate is a battle-of-the-wits with debaters trying to think of the most persuasive spin and retorts in real-time. One candidate outwitting the other is a poor reason to change a conclusion you’ve reached from years of study and reflection.
The real value for debates
Debates may not be useful as campaign advertisements, but they still have value. Candidates use debates to signal their priorities.
For example, imagine Joe Biden spends all night talking about the economy, job creation, and Obamacare. He’s saying he’ll focus on those issues as president. On the other hand, if he talks about BLM and Trump’s offensive tweeting, then he’s signaling that he’ll focus on social issues as president.
You may believe that candidates don’t get to choose what they talk about because moderators ask the questions. Oh, my sweet summer child. Politicians are trained to twist the question they were asked into the question they want to answer. Good politicians can do it so well that you don’t even notice, like a stage magician performing a card trick.
Don’t bother about who “won” the debate. That doesn’t mean anything. Instead, focus on the subtext of what the two candidates are saying. They use the debates to tell their own supporters “this is what I care about.”