The Miller Center asks the question: Do debates matter?

The Kennedy-Nixon debate of 1960. Photo courtesy of National Park Service. The Kennedy-Nixon debate of 1960. Photo courtesy of National Park Service.

Whether they watched them unfold or not, many Americans point to big moments in the history of presidential debates in this country: Nixon’s no-makeup mistake; Lloyd Bentsen’s “you’re no Jack Kennedy” quip.

But do those moments—or even the debates as a whole—really matter? It’s a question reporters and pundits revisit every election cycle. Because despite the attention and the millions of eyeballs these events get, despite the number of news stories that pile up about them, polls persistently show debates don’t seem move the needle of public opinion that much.

We may be looking at a historic exception, according to UVA’s Miller Center, a nonpartisan institute studying policy and politics.

“According to pre- and post-debate polls taken since the first televised debate in 1960, only two have generated statistically relevant bumps in polling numbers,” reads an essay on the Miller Center’s website. “In 1980, Ronald Reagan gained seven points while President Jimmy Carter lost four.  The second?  Obama versus Romney on October 3, where Pew and Gallup polls showed a Romney bounce of twelve and five points, respectively.”

The report goes on to note that many experts don’t put much stock in those polls, in part because voters aren’t always good at expressing their own subtly changed opinions.

Six big names in media and politics will sit down at the Newseum in Washington, D.C. with ABC News Chief White House Correspondent Jake Tapper on “This Week with George Stephanopoulos” Sunday night for a panel discussion organized with the help of the Miller Center. At the table will be Martha Raddatz, who moderated Thursday night’s VP debate, as well as 2012 presidential dropout Newt Gingrich, former Democratic Senator Chris Dodd, Pulitzer Prize-winning conservative chatterbox George Will, presidential historian Richard Norton Smith, and Al Gore’s 2000 campaign manager Donna Brazile.

While you wait for that, check out the Miller Center’s debate page, which has a lot of fascinating background, from archives of past presidential debates dating back to the ’60s to detailed analyses of polling data. Anybody can be a pundit!



Posted In:     News


Previous Post

Struggling ‘Hoos, upstart Terps set to renew testy rivalry

Next Post

What’s coming up in Charlottesville the week of 10/15

Our comments system is designed to foster a lively debate of ideas, offer a forum for the exchange of ad hoc information, and solicit honest, respectful feedback about the work we do. We’re glad you’re participating. Here are a few simple rules to follow, which should be relatively straightforward.

1) Don’t call people names or accuse them of things you cannot support.
2) Don’t direct foul language, racial slurs, or offensive terms at other commenters or our staff.
3) Don’t use the discussion on our site for commercial (or shameless personal) promotion.

We reserve the right to remove posts and ban commenters who violate any of the rules listed above, or the spirit of the discussion. We’re trying to create a safe space for a wide range of people to express themselves, and we believe that goal can only be achieved through thoughtful, sensitive editorial control.

If you have questions or comments about our policies or about a specific post, please send an e-mail to

Leave a Reply

0 Comment threads
0 Thread replies
Most reacted comment
Hottest comment thread
0 Comment authors
Recent comment authors
newest oldest most voted
Notify of