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National Discussion and Debate Series
Do Presidential Debates Change Elections?

Pundits and commentators across the spectrum declared Governor Mitt Romney the victor in his first debate against President Barack Obama on October 3. Consensus was that Mr. Romney’s strong performance breathed new life into his campaign, and national polls tightened in the days that followed. However, uncertainties about sustained impact remain: Did Mr. Romney’s performance truly alter the shape of the race, or was this simply a temporary bump in a campaign left essentially unchanged? The result on November 6 may help answer a larger question: Do Presidential Debates Change Elections? more →

Scholarly Reactions:

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Moderator: Jake Tapper is senior White House Correspondent at ABC News and a regular contributor to ABC programs “Good Morning America,” “Nightline,” and “World News with Diane Sawyer.” more →

Richard Norton Smith is a nationally-recognized expert on the American presidency. more →

Martha Raddatz is Senior Foreign Affairs correspondent for ABC News. On October 11, Raddatz moderated the debate between Vice President Joe Biden and Congressman Paul Ryan. more →

Newt Gingrich represented Georgia’s sixth district in the United States Congress from 1979 to 1999, including four years as Speaker of the House and four years as Minority Whip. more →

Christopher Dodd represented Connecticut in the Senate for five terms, serving from 1981 until his retirement in 2011, making him the longest-serving senator in the state’s history.more →

George F. Will is one of the most widely recognized, and widely read, writers in the world, with more than 450 newspapers, a biweekly Newsweek column, and appearances as ABC political commentator to his credit. more →

Donna Brazile is a veteran Democratic political strategist, adjunct professor, author, syndicated columnist, and political commentator. more →

Research and Scholarship

Official White Paper

Lessons from History: “Do Presidential Debates Change Elections?”

David S. Birdsell, Dean, Baruch College School of Public Affairs (BA, MA, University of Virginia; PhD, University of Maryland)

No candidate for president debated a general election opponent from the founding of the republic until 1960, when John F. Kennedy and Richard M. Nixon squared off in four televised debates; now, debates are de rigueur. In modern times, candidates leave the campaign trail for days to prepare. Each debate attracts tens of millions of viewers and they dominate press coverage during the debate “season.” Are debates worth all the fuss? Do they actually change election outcomes or just reaffirm voters’ inclinations? Read more. (PDF)


Debate Extras

Before the 2008 election, ABC News reviewed their polling data to track voters’ reactions to candidates following debates in an effort to understand the debates’ relevance and impact. Read about their conclusions.

Miller Center Resources

Presidential Oral History Program

  • Read excerpts from senior officials in the George H.W. Bush, Reagan, and Carter administrations discussing their own strategies regarding debates. (PDF)
  • A recent Washington Post article by Miller Center scholars Russell Riley and Barbara Perry featured Presidential Oral History Program interview excerpts in an article entitled “For Obama and Romney, dos and don’ts from past presidential debates”. Read more.

Miller Center Resources

Presidential Recordings Program

  • A recent ABC News story references a conversation between President Richard Nixon and his White House Chief of Staff Bob Haldeman recorded in 1971. In that recording, Nixon recounts how unprepared he was for that debate, which 77 million Americans tuned in to see. Find out more.
  • A CBS news story also based on the recently uncovered conversation between Nixon and Haldeman reveals that Nixon’s poor performance at the 1960 debate still bothered him years after it had occured. Read more.

Miller Center Resources

Miller Center Forums

Listen to this Miller Center Forum with frequent debate moderator Jim Lehrer talks about his perspective from inside these important campaign events. Click to watch or listen.

Miller Center Resources

Presidential Speech Archive

This selection of presidential debates below highlights the candidates’ different policy approaches, as well as their different personalities and the ways in which they engage with the audience.

Miller Center Resources

American President

In the 1960 presidential campaign, candidate john F. Kennedy challenged his opponent and sitting vice president Richard Nixon to a series of televised debates. Nixon, an experienced debater, accepted. The series of four debates between the two candidates became the first extensive use of what would thereafter become a staple medium of American political campaigns—television. To learn more about that first debate, visit here.

When Ronald Reagan campaigned for president in 1980, his political team knew his often inspiring oratory and his personal warmth would play well for studio audiences. They were correct, and his popularity soared in the polls after the debate and one comment in particular. Learn more here.