How Impactful Are Debates?

Road to the White House

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Since televised debates began in 1960, meaningful shifts in the front-runner status resulting from a debate performance have only occurred a few times, in 1960, 1980, 2000 and 2012.

The most consequential example may have been the first televised debate ever in 1960 where lore has it that listeners on radio thought Vice President Nixon won while those watching on TV thought Senator Kennedy did. In 1980, Ronald Reagan asked the viewing audience, “are you better off now than you were four years ago?”

In 2000, Vice President Al Gore’s sighing during Governor George W. Bush’s answers coupled with invading his personal space cost him style points. In 2012’s second debate, Senator Mitt Romney, who had been gaining momentum in the polls, chided President Obama for not calling an embassy attack in Benghazi a terrorist attack.

Obama asked the moderator to check the transcript which confirmed he had indeed called it an act of terror. There have been other memorable moments, gaffes, and one-liners, but they really didn’t change the course of affairs. There were no debates in 1964-1972.

Heading into the June 27 contest, the Real Clear Politics national polling average has Trump ahead of Biden by 0.8%.

Trump has held a slim lead nationally since September 12, 2023. He also leads in key states such as Wisconsin (0.3%), Michigan (0.3%), Pennsylvania (2.3%), Arizona (4.6%), Georgia (4.8%), North Carolina (5.3%) and Nevada (5.7%).

Upcoming Dates / Odds ‘n Ends

After the June 27 debate, upcoming events include former President Trump’s selection of a Vice Presidential running mate, each party’s convention and a second debate on September 10.

Conventional wisdom has it that Trump will seek a candidate who could step into the oval office if needed. In addition, the likely candidate should have a clean and vetted record, as to not add to the former president’s outstanding list of dealings.

The candidate must also be loyal and willing to fight on Trump’s behalf but cannot be so charismatic as to upstage him. Compared to criteria often valued in the past, Trump probably won’t put a lot of weight on his pick being able to deliver a certain state or voting bloc, thinking that voters almost always vote for the top of the ticket and not the running-mate.

The US Constitution mandates the selection hail from a different state from the President.

By tradition, the party outside the White House holds their convention first. This year’s Republican Convention is scheduled to be held July 15 to 18, 2024, at the Fiserv Forum in Milwaukee, Wisconsin.

The Democratic Convention is scheduled to be held August 19 to 22, 2024, at the United Center in Chicago, Illinois.

Historically, it has been hard to unseat a sitting President in the absence of a recession. In the nine such cases since World War II, seven sitting Presidents went on to be re-elected.

Two others lost in years touched by an NBER3-dated recession. By contrast, when the incumbent party ran anyone other than the sitting president, that candidate lost in six of seven instances.

The S&P 500 has risen in 13 of the past 15 election years. It has also posted positive returns during both the Trump and Biden presidencies.