They are billed as last ditch attempts to sway independents to their cause, but whether presidential candidates gain much out of them is a different matter.
US presidential candidates Donald Trump and Joe Biden locked horns Thursday night for the last televised debate before the November 3 election.
As much a point of interest as the actual content was the result of polling immediately after the broadcast had ended.
A CNN poll said 53 percent of voters thought Biden had won compared to Trump’s 39 percent.
The incumbent went with a different polling method, relying on Twitter polls by largely conservative figures and outlets instead of the statistically weighted approach preferred by the news outlet.
These naturally showed Trump winning by margins. One had Trump beating Biden 96 percent to four, another by 91 to nine, and one more by the Daily Wire had him on 95 to four, with the remaining one percent presumably clicking the option to check the results without choosing one of the other two options.
But perhaps the most striking detail was tucked away in the CNN poll. While Biden was judged to have won the debate by a healthy margin, there was very little, if any, shift in the audience's perception of the candidate before and after.
Before the debate, 55 percent of the polling sample expressed favourable views of Biden, a number that shifted to 56 percent after it had ended.
Trump had a 42 percent favourability rating before the debate and that had dropped by just a single percentage point.
The differences were minimal and hardly conclusive given the margin of error and lead to one asking whether the TV debates make any difference at all.
A brief history of television debates
Once upon a time, televised debates definitely mattered. In 1960, televisions had become widespread across the US and alongside newspapers and radio were the primary means through which people learned about the world.
On September 26 of that year, a little known Democrat senator, named John F Kennedy, would face off against Republican nominee Richard Nixon in the runup to the presidential election.
The debate, watched by 60 percent of American adults, tuned in for what would become a seminal moment in American politics.
Focus was less on what the candidates had to say than their demeanour and presence on screen.
Kennedy cut a youthful figure, his self assuredness evident, marking a dramatic contrast with Nixon, who appeared stern, wooden, sweat gathering around his lips.
The debate was a turning point, and for Kennedy there was no turning back. Voters charmed by what they saw made the senator from Massachusetts the youngest elected president in US history.
Nixon avoided the televised format during his successful bid for the presidency in 1968 and it only returned in 1976. There was no escaping the fact that the televised debate was a big deal in deciding who would win.
Why it matters less today
Flash forward 60 years and televised debates have lost their impact somewhat. They still provide enough soundbites for viral news stories but do little statistically to determine the outcome of an election.
According to the Scientific American, this might have something to do with the type of person who watches the debates.
Today, people most likely to give up the many distractions of modern life, such as social media, streaming services, etc, are likely to be people already very interested in politics.
People who already have a keen interest in political issues prior to watching a debate are more likely to have an existing set of political beliefs.
Unlike the 60s, candidates in 2020 are highly unlikely to be unknown. It takes a particularly socially detached person to not know who Donald Trump is or what he stands for.
Social media, online news, and 24 hour news channels, make it difficult to not be bombarded with things a candidate has said and where they stand on key issues. A television debate is therefore unlikely to reveal anything new about a candidate.
Infact, as a candidate’s duty is just as much maintaining an existing base as it is attracting new voters, there is just as much incentive to not veer too far off track from what people are expecting.
A Trump performance that does not come out aggressively against his opponent, and appears too cordial may put off Trump supporters who value exactly those characteristics. Similarly, a Biden performance that is not calm and measured, may put off supporters who back him for those traits.
Given so little is on the line, it is fair to ask whether there is more to the spectacle than entertainment value.