Why You Should Skip the Presidential Debate

Alexei is a graduate student at the Goldman School of Public Policy.

On Wednesday, October 3, Mitt Romney and Barack Obama will face off in the first of three Presidential debates. I plan to spend the evening watching the final night of regular-season baseball.

Why would a committed political junkie such as me skip the most-watched political event of the year? Because the debates do not matter in any meaningful sense: they will only be important if one candidate makes a major mistake. If that happens, I can just catch it on YouTube on Thursday.

The debates do not matter because nothing of significance will be said at them. Both candidates have already made their positions on the issues clear, or at least as clear as is politically necessary. If the Republicans had nominated Newt Gingrich or another flashy candidate, the debates could make for political theater. Instead, they chose Mitt Romney, who is so bland that he makes Al Gore look like Russell Brand. President Obama, meanwhile, is as risk-averse and cool as they come. As a result, neither candidate will say anything that hasn’t already been focus-grouped to death months ago.

Neither candidate will give any new policy specifics, either. Romney’s tax plan will remain mysterious, with Paul Ryan telling an interviewer recently that it was too complex to explain. Obama will continue to minimize huge portions of his record (the stimulus, for example) and stay away from the specifics of his proposals for a second term. Neither candidate wants to get into a discussion of Obamacare. The two will spar about vague ideas that only bear a passing resemblance to actual policy proposals.

The media coverage on Thursday will unfold predictably. Romney will say something that the media thinks is a gaffe, but isn’t because Republicans actually believe things that the media finds insane (see also: 47% comment, the Cairo comment). They will find Obama competent by vaguely disappointing. No undecided voters will make their choices based on the debate, because undecided voters are the least-likely group to actually watch. Both campaigns will find moments of glory for their candidate and moments of weakness for the opponent that they will use to rally their basses.

That’s really the core problem with debates: debates are really only useful to undecided voters and undecided voters aren’t paying attention. Decided voters have all sorts of cognitive biases keeping them from having their minds changed by the debates, so for them, the debates are simply an excuse to cheer on their candidate and jeer at the other one. Undecided voters could potentially see something that makes them make up their minds.

But there are very few undecided voters, and very few of them will watch the debate. According to most polls, upwards of 95% of voters have made up their minds. A survey by UCLA political scientist Lynn Vavreck shows that undecided voters are generally much less informed about the election than decided voters and much less interested. While 43% of decided voters are following the election very closely, just 12% of undecided voters are. So the slice of people who will actually learn something from the debates is 12% of the 5% of undecideds: just six-tenths of a percent of voters could realistically make up their minds from the debates. With President Obama holding a 4% lead in the polls on average according to Real Clear Politics, this means that the debates almost certainly will not matter.

So why not watch the debates simply to cheer on your favored candidate? Why not treat them like a sporting event? Because doing so cheapens politics and feeds into the extreme polarization that cripples our political system. By cheering for the red team or the blue team, we make it more difficult to bridge the divide. This approach to politics feeds into the worst aspect of our current political landscape. I, for one, refuse to feed into this system any longer. On Wednesday night, I’m watching a real sport.