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!