June 27, 2024

In Brief: Watching Debates With Voters

Key takeaways from 30 years of seeing voters respond to candidates in debates.

Frank Luntz, says The New York Times at the top of his op-ed, is a focus group moderator, pollster, professor and communications strategist who worked for Republican candidates in previous elections. Luntz has some thoughts going into tomorrow night’s first debate between Donald Trump and Joe Biden.

If you’re a typical American voter in any party, allow me to let you in on a little secret: What matters most to you in a presidential debate probably isn’t the same thing that gets the most attention from the candidates, the campaigns and their allies in the immediate aftermath of those big televised showdowns.

I’ve learned this from studying American reactions to almost every general election presidential debate since 1992. I’ve sat with small groups of voters selected from pools of thousands of undecided voters nationally, watching more than two dozen presidential and vice-presidential debates in real time, and it still amazes me that minuscule moments, verbal miscues and misremembering little details can matter so much in the spin room and to partisan pundits afterward. Yet those things often have little to no discernible impact on the opinions of many people watching at home. …

At the risk of offending every high school debate coach in America, many voters respond to style more than substance. The well-delivered quip lingers longer than the litany of facts, and the visual often trumps the verbal. It’s not just that the electorate tends to be drawn more to younger and more attractive candidates (like Mr. Obama, Mr. Clinton and John F. Kennedy) or to those with more commanding stage presence (which Mr. Reagan had over Jimmy Carter and Walter Mondale, and George H.W. Bush had over Michael Dukakis). While the 2016 and 2020 debates featuring Mr. Trump certainly upended our collective expectations about what exactly is presidential, listening to the voters describe each debate and their gut impressions of the candidates is more instructive about the eventual election winner than getting swept up in spin and punditry.

Luntz says an overlooked aspect of debates is “voter expectations of a candidate’s performance.” He also says that while “policy solutions definitely matter,” that “personality, relatability and dignity matter more.” Then he offered something for Trump to watch out for.

And it’s not just the candidate’s personal performance that leaves an impression. Sometimes forces that are less visible, like the debate rules, play a major role in determining the outcome. The length of time given to respond to questions from the moderator can reward or punish candidates, depending on their individual styles and ability to communicate succinctly. Nothing draws the ire of the average voter more than candidates speaking beyond their allotted time, my focus groups have shown. While most professional debate observers ignore candidates who run long, voters punish them mercilessly. It was a major reason many undecided voters turned so strongly against Mr. Trump after his undisciplined performance in the first debate in 2020.

That debate, the most consequential one in memory, was one in which many voters and political experts drew roughly the same conclusions. Mr. Trump entered the debate trailing Mr. Biden by just a couple of percentage points, but his questionable strategy to insult, badger and bully Mr. Biden was received so badly by the women in my focus group that they were as harsh about Mr. Trump as he was to Mr. Biden.

He concludes:

In the end, it’s not the facts, the policies or even the one-upmanship that Mr. Biden and Mr. Trump offer in the debate that matters. It’s how they make voters feel.

Read the whole thing here.

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