Do Debates Determine Election Winners? Only On Likeability

Fight disinformation: Sign up for the free Mother Jones Daily newsletter and follow the news that matters.


I guess I shouldn’t be surprised that the American voter can be pretty superficial sometimes, but I still find this disheartening.

Turns out, candidates who “won” past presidential debates didn’t always win the elections that followed, but candidates who were found more “likeable” in the debates did. Andrew Romano of Newsweek points to unlikeable put well-prepared debaters who went on to lose in November and then says:

In 1984, Reagan struck voters as about 20 percent more likeable than Mondale. Bush defeated Dukakis largely because he “triumphed in the congeniality competition”–and later lost to Clinton largely because he didn’t. After the Oct. 17, 2000 debate, voters rated Bush the more likable candidate, 60-30; four years later, Dubya whipped Kerry 52-41 in the same department. In other words, the candidate who won the debates may not have won the subsequent election–but the candidate who came off as most congenial almost always did.

Romano adds that all of this bodes well for Obama. “According to the CNN poll, viewers found the Illinois Democrat more likeable last night by a margin of 65 to 28 percent–a far larger spread than either Reagan, Bush, Clinton or W. ever enjoyed in similar surveys.”

This information does not suggest a direct correlation between likeability in debates and election victories (ie people aren’t saying, “He was a nice dude in that debate I remember watching three weeks ago, I’m voting for him.”). Instead, it suggests that candidates who know how to appear friendly in the debates, regardless of their command of the issues, also know how to win voters over the course of a campaign.

I don’t know why I’m startled by this. We lived through eight years of George W. Bush after all, a man who took the White House because his debate opponent sighed too loudly…

TIME IS RUNNING OUT!

We have an ambitious $350,000 online fundraising goal this month and it's truly crunch time: About 15 percent of our yearly online giving usually comes in during the final week of the year, and in "No Cute Headlines or Manipulative BS," we explain why we simply can't afford to come up short right now.

The bottom line: Corporations and powerful people with deep pockets will never sustain the type of journalism Mother Jones exists to do. And advertising or profit-driven ownership groups will never make time-intensive, in-depth reporting viable.

That's why donations big and small make up 74 percent of our budget this year. There is no backup to keep us going, no alternate revenue source, no secret benefactor. If readers don’t donate, we won’t be here. It's that simple.

And if you can help us out with a donation right now, all online gifts will be matched thanks to an incredibly generous matching gift pledge.

payment methods

TIME IS RUNNING OUT!

We have an ambitious $350,000 online fundraising goal this month and it's truly crunch time: About 15 percent of our yearly online giving usually comes in during the final week of the year, and in "No Cute Headlines or Manipulative BS," we explain why we simply can't afford to come up short right now.

The bottom line: Corporations and powerful people with deep pockets will never sustain the type of journalism Mother Jones exists to do. And advertising or profit-driven ownership groups will never make time-intensive, in-depth reporting viable.

That's why donations big and small make up 74 percent of our budget this year. There is no backup to keep us going, no alternate revenue source, no secret benefactor. If readers don’t donate, we won’t be here. It's that simple.

And if you can help us out with a donation right now, all online gifts will be matched thanks to an incredibly generous matching gift pledge.

payment methods

We Recommend

Latest

Sign up for our free newsletter

Subscribe to the Mother Jones Daily to have our top stories delivered directly to your inbox.

Get our award-winning magazine

Save big on a full year of investigations, ideas, and insights.

Subscribe

Support our journalism

Help Mother Jones' reporters dig deep with a tax-deductible donation.

Donate