The Impact of the First Presidential Debate

By Sophia Ardell, Wendy Dong, Sean MacDonald, and Ian Stewart

1 Pre-Debate Discussion:

As always, the lead up to the first presidential debate is full of tension and uncertainty. The usual volatility of Trump combined with the pneumonia-ridden Clinton is already provoking discussion, and forecasters are calling for the possibility of the most viewed debate ever, surpassing the previous high of 80 million views in 1980 when Jimmy Carter butted heads with Ronald Reagan. Going into the debate, Bloomberg Politics has the Democratic and Republican candidates at 46% each. When the third party candidates are factored in, the race remains tight:

 

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Trump’s 2% lead is well within the +/-3.1% margin of error. This election stands out from previous seasons as voters on both sides show a degree of unwavering commitment to their candidate that previously has been unobserved. Additionally, both Trump and Clinton have unfavorability ratings of 56% . Both of these unprecedented factors cast doubt on whether previously successful political forecasting models can be trusted in these elections.

 

Moving into this debate, it is projected that Hillary’s experience and composure will overshadow Trump’s passionate, impulsive approach:

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Trump’s ability to maintain a presidential appearance for 90 minutes has been questioned across media platforms . However, both candidates has a host of attributes that the public is dissatisfied with, and it is worth noting which are addressed. For example, voters are concerned with Clinton’s use of a private email server, and there has been lots of frustrated media coverage on her not disclosing her recent illness sooner. One of Trump’s biggest concerns surrounds the legitimacy of his charitable foundation and his real-estate program.

2 Post-Debate Discussion on the Role of Media and Polls on

Undecided Voters:

So who won? Despite the record-high viewership of the debate, many turned to the media and polls for the answer. In a CNN debate poll that asked “Regardless of which candidate you happen to support, who do you think did the best job in the debate – Hillary Clinton or Donald Trump?” 62% said Clinton and 27% said Trump. This poll marks a definitive win for Clinton, and though there have been some disagreements to the answer ( Fox News declared Trump the winner, though admittedly said the media consensus was that Clinton won ), does it really matter who “won”? Obviously, debate performance isn’t the only factor when determining the election, nor is it always a significant factor. In the same CNN poll in 2004, results showed Kerry dominating Bush every debate, in some by almost 20%.

According to the Huffington Post, 91% of voters were already decided going into the debate, and though voters can change their minds, this election has seen candidate support that is staunch and unchanging ( with Trump remarking he could shoot someone and still keep his support ). But many of those undecided may be agnostic voters, falling into Converse’s “no issue content” group. It is likely that these voters did not care enough to watch the debate, and in that respect the reported answer to who won the debate matters. These voters (who may not vote so it is questionable how significant their opinion is) will still open Facebook or watch the news and see who the media declares the winner. For this election especially, it doesn’t matter who watches or what most of the watchers say, it matters who the media declares the winner and what immediate polls state.

Clinton, who enjoyed an early on lead in the polls, needed this “win” to help her numbers, which recently have been coming close to Trump’s, as she loses her margin. Therefore, while the debate won’t change the minds of loyal Trump supporters, it should cause some of the previously undecided voters to choose Clinton as election day nears, which can help Clinton get a boost in the polls she needs.

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2.a How the Media Can Influence Voter Opinion

The 2018 election has been anything but calm, and the first Clinton vs. Trump presidential debate only added to the vast amount of media coverage. The debate was predicted by experts and the media alike to be the most watched debate in history. In the days leading up to the debate, popular news outlets were hyping up the importance of the showdown. U.S. News called it the “Clash of the Century”, while CNN told viewers to expect an “Olympic Battle of Wits”. However, according to a piece published in the Washington Post’s Monkey Cage titled Here are 5 keys to watching Monday night’s debate between Clinton and Trump, it is not so much the media that leads up to a debate that matters, but the media coverage after.

In a 2004 study conducted by Arizona State Universit y, researchers divided the subjects in three groups. One group only watched footage of the third presidential debate in 2004, the second watched the debate footage and 20 minutes of post-debate commentary on NBC, and the last group watched the debate footage and had 20 minutes to read CNN’s analysis of the debate.

So who did people think won the debate, Kerry or Bush? Turns out, it depended on whether or not subjects watched the news. Those who only watched the debate footage tended to think Kerry won. However, those who watched the debate and read the commentary on CNN tended to think that Kerry won, while those who watched the commentary on NBC thought Bush won. This discrepancy in opinions shows that people’s attitudes are in fact susceptible to the media’s interpretations, since the media will often change a candidate’s message.

However, as we have learned in class, no study is perfect. The sample size for each group was fairly small (as show in the graph), and there could have been possible selection bias based on how the study acquired its subjects. In addition, the wording of a question is very important and can “frame” a person to answer it a certain way (framing effect).However, all in all, it is still important be aware and think about how the media coverage of the first Clinton vs. Trump debate may affect voter opinions.

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3 Conclusion

As we have discussed, there remains few undecided voters this election season, and their opinion very likely hinges on the media coverage of the first presidential debate. Because of the general consensus of Clinton’s victory in the press and publicized polls, we predict an increase in support for Clinton that is beyond the margin of error, while Trump’s support stays stagnant or decreases slightly.

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