Do Presidential Debates Really Matter?

With Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney behind in the polls nationally and in some key battleground states, can the first presidential debate on Wednesday make a difference in the campaign?

Appearing on three talk shows on Sunday, New Jersey Governor Chris Christie, a Romney supporter, set high expectations for Romney on Wednesday.

Answering a question about Romney's poor showing in recent polls, Christie said, "When Governor Romney, for the first time, gets on the same stage as the president of the United States and people can make a direct comparison about them and their visions for the future, and Wednesday night's the restart of the campaign, and I think you're going to see those numbers move right back in the other direction."

While the Obama campaign may agree that the poll numbers could move in Romney's direction, chief strategist David Axelrod does not believe the debates can change the outcome of the election. Axelrod believes that candidates are defined in the Summer and whatever happens after Labor Day will not impact the race enough to change the outcome. This is why the Obama campaign decided to spend a large portion of its money on campaign ads during the Summer.

Liberal Washington Post columnist Ezra Klein takes a similar view. He points out that in the last 15 presidential elections, whichever candidate was leading after the conventions went on to win the race.

ABC News political analyst Matthew Dowd, who was chief strategist for President George W. Bush's re-election campaign in 2004, takes a different view. In a panel discussion on ABC's "This Week," Dowd recalled that Bush was six or seven points ahead of John Kerry before the first debate, but the race was nearly tied after the debate.

Bush "didn't prepare well, he came across as slightly impatient, didn't feel like he wanted to be there ... that race went from a six or seven point race to a one point race in 48 hours," Dowd said.

In a Thursday interview with The Christian Post, Scott Keeter, director of survey research for Pew Research Center, said that there are two different ways to look at the question of whether or not debates, or other events that happen after the conventions, matter.

While it may be true that whichever candidate is leading after the conventions is more likely than not to win on Election Day, that does not mean that events, such as the debates, that happen after Labor Day do not make a difference.

"You could say that things that happen in campaigns [after Labor Day] don't change the final outcome and that is probably true more often than not. That isn't to say that what happens after Labor Day doesn't change the relative margins," Keeter explained.

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