The Debates as Democratic Façade: Voter “Rationality” in American Elections

Presidential debate time provides an opportunity to address many of the myths surrounding American elections. We’re told that the debates are an opportunity for citizens to learn about the policy stances of the candidates, and that in a democracy, citizens are empowered by becoming informed about those running for office, thereby allowing for educated vote choice. There are at least three big problems with this narrative, relating to artificial limits imposed on the debate format, in addition to the shallow nature of American voting and voting discourse in general.

First, there is the notion that the debates serve to democratically empower the masses through education. This claim is apparent in reporting on the debate. The USA Today reports the stakes for Donald Trump (9/25/2016) in particular, who is “facing crucial tests about whether the often brash Republican nominee can demonstrate the temperament and policy expertise to serve as president.” The New York Times also writes that the debates are Trump’s “best opportunity to prove he can be trusted to serve as a head of state. He has to show discipline when it comes to how he engages Mrs. Clinton, challenging her without belittling her, and at least show he is conversant on foreign and domestic issues” (9/26/2016). The Washington Post reports that for Clinton, the debates are “a chance for her to present what she actually hopes to accomplish as president,” and for Trump they are an “opportunity to demonstrate command of the issues” (9/25/16). This romantic narrative democratic reinforces the image of American votes as rationally empowered individual actors, choosing between competing candidates based on the substance of their policy stances.

But there are many reasons to challenge the conventional depiction of debates. First, there is little scholarly evidence that the debates have a large impact on public attitudes, as is well known among political scientists. One study by Erikson and Wlezien of elections from 1952 to 2008 found little shift from pre-debate to post-debate opinions about the candidates. Rather, the study found that “the best prediction from the debates is the initial verdict [of the public] before the debates” occur. Another study of the debates by James Stimson from 1960 to 2000 found that “there is no case where we can trace a substantial shift to the debates” in terms of their impacting opinions of candidates or election outcomes. Much of this non-effect likely relates to most Americans who are interested enough in paying attention to the debates having already made a decision between the candidates. In short, much of the adulation about the democratic empowerment of the debates is cover for journalists to claim continued relevance via the melo-dramatization of debate events with limited practical significance to the election outcome. Having pointed out the historically limited role of the debates in determining elections, it is at least possible, however, that the debates could have some sort of impact on the election outcome in light of the very close polling between Clinton and Trump. The gap between them in recent weeks vacillates between one to three percentage points, suggesting even small changes in public opinion could impact the election at this point. With such a close election, it’s possible that some undecided voters could influence the polling numbers based on the debates.

A second problem with the “debates as empowering the public” myth relates to the artificial nature of the debate format. There is one way in which the debates could contribute to democratic empowerment via providing much needed information to the public – and that’s by providing third-party candidates access. The vast majority of Americans know little about the third parties, and a debate would offer them a chance to consider alternative candidates like the Green Party’s Jill Stein and the Libertarian Party’s Gary Johnson. But the Commission on Presidential Debates (CPD) has long blackballed these candidates, rightly viewing them as a potential threat to the major parties should they gain mass exposure. Of course, by limiting the debate format to only the “serious” candidates, the CPD creates a self-fulfilling prophecy, ensuring that the public never learns about these candidates in the first place.

A third problem with the “debate empowerment” narrative is that it falsely assumes the media provide much needed policy information, thereby allowing Americans to make principled voting decisions based on being well-informed about candidates’ policy stances. There is little in this narrative that accurately reflects reality. American voters display very little evidence of rational calculations in voting, overwhelmingly choosing between candidates based on perceived personality differences and other non-policy related factors. The superficiality of American voting is not surprising, considering the dearth of information provided in the media about where the candidates stand on policy. Consider, for example, recent Pew Research Center data from the 2008 and 2012 elections. In 2008, policy-issue related information constituted just 20 percent of the total “newshole” in the election. In contrast, personal issues related to candidates, discussion of ads and fundraising, reporting on the “horse-race” aspect of which presidential candidate was ahead or behind, and “other” non-policy content comprised 74 percent of all news coverage in the months before the election. Similarly, in the 2012 primaries, Pew found 76 percent of all coverage focused on “strategy” and “personal issues” of the candidates, compared to just 10 percent that addressed foreign and domestic policy issues.

If media coverage rarely addresses substantive policy issues, and election ads notoriously fail to provide meaningful information independent of individual candidate’s own slant, then Americans will find it extremely difficult to make voting choices informed by political issues. Gallup polling statistics find Americans rarely rely on policy calculations when deciding on which candidate to support. For example, during the primary season, Gallup’s February 2016 poll found that four out of the five top reasons Trump supporters provided for preferring him had nothing to do with policy. These included the following rationalizations: 1. He’s not a “career politician”; 2. He’s a “good businessman”; 3. He “speaks his mind”; 4. His stance on immigration; and 5. He’s a “strong” candidate. Just one of these five is policy-relevant. Rounding out the top ten reasons people supported Trump, one saw these feelings: 6. He’s “self-funded”; 7. He’s “honest”; 8. He will “improve the U.S. standing in the world”; 9. He has a “good outlook”; and 10. He will protect Constitutional rights. In summary, just two of the top ten reasons people provided for supporting Trump were policy-related, and one was flagrantly wrong at that – the erroneous notion that Trump supports strengthening and preserving the Constitution in light of his numerous attacks on press freedom, religious freedom, privacy rights, and protections against torture.

On the Democratic side, voter calculations were no more encouraging. In Gallup’s March 2016 survey, the top five reasons Clinton supporters cited for preferring her included: 1. She’s “experienced”; 2. She served in the White House previously as First Lady under Bill Clinton; 3. She “cares for people”; 4. She’s a woman; 5. She has a “good platform.” Only issue five is relevant to policy in any direct way. Rounding out the top ten reasons for Clinton support were the following: 6. She’s “smart”; 7. She’s a “strong leader”; 8. She’s well versed in foreign policy; 9. She “will win”; and 10. The country needs the kind of “change” Clinton will bring. Again as with Trump, just two of the top ten reasons for Clinton support were policy related, one covering her “policy platform,” and the other covering her foreign policy.

The problem with using non-policy related considerations for voting purposes is that they are easily manipulated. For example, the notion that Trump is a successful businessman is questionable at best in light of his many business bankruptcies, his vastly inflated personal wealth claims, and findings that he would have earned as much investing his inheritance in S&P 500 index funds as he did on his own historical investments. Trump’s claim that he is self-funded is inaccurate, with at least one-third of his funding by early 2016 coming from small and large donors. The notion that he will improve the U.S. standing in the world is flat wrong, as his candidacy has provoked horror among many U.S. allies. Finally, the notion that Trump is an honest candidate is erroneous, with non-partisan fact check findings suggesting his candidacy was the second-least truthful of all Democratic and Republican primary candidates, behind only Ben Carson.

One could just as easily look at motivations for supporting Clinton and point out their superficiality. Indicating that one will vote for a candidate because he or she “will win” is the height of superficial, meaningless voting. Claims that Clinton “cares for people” are difficult to evaluate without knowledge of specific policies she supports, and most Americans would probably disagree with this conclusion in light of her (and Trump’s) historically bad trustworthiness and approval ratings. The notion that “she’s experienced” tells one nothing about whether she brings the kind of experience that is beneficial to, or harmful to the public interest. One could only make a determination on that based on looking at her policy proposals and her history of accomplishments in office. Finally, promises of “change” are historically vacuous, as they are made by nearly all candidates, and tell us nothing about what kinds of changes to expect.

Finally, the first debate between Trump and Clinton suggests a wholesale lack of substance in American electoral politics. With regard to Trump, the Republican’s contributions were rife with glittering generalities, with his comments incoherent and light on policy proposals, mixed with a caustic, harassing, interrogating, and angry approach to “debating” Clinton. Despite his apt criticism of “free trade” for harming American workers, Trump’s underdeveloped, drunken dorm room politics offered prospective voters little indication of how to assess him on policy issues across the board, despite his authoritarian belligerent personality clearly shining through.

On Clinton’s side, much (probably most) of her time was spent attacking Trump, rather than laying out a positive vision for progressive change. Clinton did make many policy-related appeals early in the debate, promising a higher minimum wage, infrastructure development, renewable energy investments, and additional funding for education. Left critics, however, can easily point out the discrepancy between her and the Democratic Party’s progressive promises, and the reality that inequality has grown significantly during the age of Obama, as progressive reforms such as a living wage and the Employee Free Choice Act were abandoned, and in light of the Democrats’ pro-business proposals such as the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP).

CNN-ORC polling of viewers and listeners immediately after the first debate suggest that 67 percent of debate viewers and listeners feel Clinton “won” the debate, compared to just 27 percent who say Trump won. It’s difficult, however, to attribute this assessment to an informed engagement in the candidates’ policy proposals, considering that much of the debate degenerated into vicious personal attacks, rather than laying out comprehensive visions for the future. Clinton’s victory appears to be more the result of Clinton capitalizing on Trump’s train wreck performance than her ability to lay out a comprehensive plan for progressive reform.

Many American voters will take comfort in the media promises that the debates are a vital moment and a crucial opportunity to educate the public in performing their democratic civic duties. Unfortunately, this conventional narrative is contradicted by much of the available evidence. As survey statistics, and the first debate itself demonstrates, the American public is heavily impoverished when it comes to employing policy-informed, rational calculations when voting. Short of a major change in how citizens are informed about election candidates, little is likely to change regarding mass public ignorance.

Anthony DiMaggio is Associate Professor of Political Science at Lehigh University. He is the author of Rising Fascism in America: It Can Happen Here (Routledge, 2022), in addition to Rebellion in America (Routledge, 2020), and Unequal America (Routledge, 2021). He can be reached at: A digital copy of Rebellion in America can be read for free here.