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Do presidential debates matter? UK political science professor explains why most people tune in

Donald Trump, Joe Biden
Posted at 7:32 PM, Sep 28, 2020

(LEX 18) — President Donald Trump and Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden will go head to head during the first presidential debate on Tuesday. It's a night that will likely have millions of people watching, but experts say most voters already have their minds made up going into the event.

"Most of the people who tune into them already know how their voting," said Dr. Stephen Voss, a political science professor at the University of Kentucky. "It's like a sporting match where most people are fans of one team or the other, and they're just hoping to see their side win."

Dr. Voss believes a poor performance in a presidential debate could have a short-term impact because people will talk about it for a while. But overall, it won't matter too much. For example, President Barack Obama had a bad debate performance against Mitt Romney in 2012, but he won the election.

However, certain things could concern voters. And this time around, age plays a factor.

"A mistake in a debate or on the campaign trail matters when it reinforces a concern voters already have," said Dr. Voss. "Since we're dealing with two fairly old men running, I think the biggest danger would be if they seem daft. If they perform in a way that reinforces a sense that maybe, health-wise, they're not up to four years of the presidency."

When it comes to mistakes during a debate, they happen. Voss points out that both Trump and Biden aren't the best in live situations.

"Both Donald Trump and Joe Biden have a tendency, when they go off-script, to misspeak," said Dr. Voss. "So, the risk of a gaffe, of an embarrassing mistake, maybe is higher this time around than it normally would be for a presidential debate."