Looking at Recent Debate Cycles

Tom Holbrooke, Professor of Political Science at UW-Milwaukee, provides the following run-down of presidential debates  dating back to 1988, which comports with any number of other such comparisons:

Now, on the one hand, the number of observations is small (6 elections and 16 debates), so no, we cannot draw ironclad inferences from the figures.  On the other hand, as Holbrook notes, “Across all 16 presidential debates the average absolute change in candidate support was just less than 1 percentage point.”

So, the question becomes whether the general patterns holds in the current cycle.  While, as I noted, I think that Romney “won” in the sense that he met and exceeded the expectations games (and will get a round of positive press as a result), the odds are likely that any bump in the daily tracking polls will be small.  At a minimum, the likelihood is that last night will generate a previously missing optimism for the Romney campaign and his supporters.

And, of course, there are two more data points yet to go.

FILED UNDER: 2012 Election, US Politics, , ,
Steven L. Taylor
About Steven L. Taylor
Steven L. Taylor is a Professor of Political Science and a College of Arts and Sciences Dean. His main areas of expertise include parties, elections, and the institutional design of democracies. His most recent book is the co-authored A Different Democracy: American Government in a 31-Country Perspective. He earned his Ph.D. from the University of Texas and his BA from the University of California, Irvine. He has been blogging since 2003 (originally at the now defunct Poliblog). Follow Steven on Twitter


  1. Just Me says:

    I don’t particularly expect to see any significant bump. There will likely be some bump for Romney-especially since Obama IMO looked pretty awful (and I imagine his campaign team is already at work to avoid a repeat in the next debate), but I don’t see a bump that changes the outcome of the race.

    I have long believed Obama has a very easy path to victory-and still do. It isn’t in the bag and he could still losr, but I have a hard time believing a debate is what sinks him (if the media cacks down on Benghaziand the economy rather than carrying water for him, that might sink him, but crappy debates probably not).

  2. KariQ says:

    The real question is whether Obama’s numbers will go down. He’s been consistently receiving 49-50% in the polls lately. If the race tightens by Romney’s numbers regaining the point or so he lost in September while Obama remains at the same level, it doesn’t mean very much.

  3. PJ says:

    I think last night’s debate has given the Obama campaign quite a number of sound clips of Romney saying things that aren’t true.

  4. john personna says:


    I’m hoping that Obama was playing the slow game.

    Romney Goes On Offense, Pays For It In First Wave Of Fact Checks

  5. JKB says:

    If there is a change it will be in the poll manipulation area. I think the debate will have an impact on turnout and those polls using the 2008 party-line numbers will be off.

  6. michael reynolds says:

    I think there will be a bump. I expect polls to show it a tie in the national numbers.

    Let’s be clear: that was a terrible performance. It gave Romney back everything his screw-ups had cost him. This race is now re-set to a degree. Democrats should not minimize this the way Republicans minimized the 47%. This was bad for enthusiasm. it undercut the president’s own narrative on Romney, it was, in short, disastrous. If Obama loses it will be because of this debate.

  7. bookdragon says:

    As I’ve been thinking about it and reading reactions, I think this may, weird as it may seem, play in Obama’s favor.

    I could be totally wrong about this, but one of the big fears with the widening gap in the polls was that a small, but significant, number of people would figure ‘Hey, the Obama is a shoo-in, I don’t need to go to the hassle of getting up early or standing in line after work to vote.’ (Note: where I am, in PA, if you work Tuesdays and don’t have an allowable reason to cast an absentee ballot, those are your choices. This state does its best to making voting hard). Now a tightening race will motivate supporters to get out.

  8. Jen says:

    @michael reynolds: Agreed on all points except your final one–there are still two more debates and I think the attention span on things like debates are short.

    Now if he performs as poorly in debates 2 and 3, or even just 3, I’ll be very concerned. Because at that point, there’s no turning back and his base will be demoralized.

  9. JKB says:

    Walter Russell Mead points out that the real loser last night was the media. Romney got around them and they guy the American people saw was not anything like the media’s propaganda. It remains to be seen if this can be built on but people now will question the false narrative that has been being pushed by the MSM.

    Debates may offer more opportunities for Republican presidential candidates than for Democratic ones; it is a chance not only to replace the negative media portrait with something more positive, but to challenge the veracity of the media itself. Bemused liberals used to wonder why Ronald Reagan was the Teflon president; a big reason was that the contrast between the president as portrayed in the press and the president as seen directly by voters was so large that voters stopped believing anything the media had to say about President Reagan. They discounted negative stories to take account of what they assumed was an inveterate, unchanging bias; the more the media howled, the more many voters thought Reagan must be doing something right.

    I was young at the time but I think that is what happened with Reagan. He came out of the debates having destroyed the MSM’s portrayals. This helped him to become an acceptable alternative to Carter. Romney broke the media spell last night.

  10. Ben says:


    You’re right, he showed that he is different than his MSM portrayal. His portrayal up until now has been as a somewhat bland, robotic flip-flopper with his finger to the wind. Last night, he showed America that he is a fiery, aggressive flip-flopper who lied so much his pants were on fire.


  11. stonetools says:


    What happened at this debate is that Romney did his Etch-a-Sketch and Obama let him get away with it. Now maybe Obama just wasn’t ready for Mitt’s sudden lurch to the center, and didn’t have any zingers ready for someone who is suddenly a defender of universal health insurance and banking regulation.
    Well, he needs to get ready for sudden policy changes for Mitt for the next debate. and can SOMEBODY please get him to deliver shorter, punchier answers? PLEEEEEEEEEEEEZ!!

  12. grumpy realist says:

    If the US decides to elect Mitt Romney as President, it shouldn’t be surprised at what will happen.
    Possibly amusing and educational….but I’ll watch the situation from another country, thank you.