The first presidential debate was the most watched in history, with the following two drawing in equally large audiences. But following the election, many wonder if these debates actually changed any minds. James Piereson, an expert on the topic, weighs in with commentary from voters from both parties.
By Brodie Putz
November 19, 2016
The first presidential debate was the most watched in history. Over 80 million people tuned in as Democrat Hillary Clinton and Republican Donald Trump faced off for the first time. Insults, accusations, and denials were thrown back and forth from both sides in dramatic fashion. The following two debates weren’t far different either. But following the election, many wonder if the debates actually changed any minds.
“You have this thing happening today where you have this angry electorate,” James Piereson, president of the William E. Simon Foundation, senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute and author of the book, Shattered Consensus: The Rise and Decline of America’s Postwar Political Order, said. “The people at the center have diminished over time. Public opinion has divided us up to the point that we have a couple of lumps – a liberal lump on one side and a conservative lump on the other. And the bigger the lumps, the more likely they are to stay.”
Political polarization – the vast and growing gap between liberals and conservatives, Republicans and Democrats – is a defining feature of American politics. According to a study by the PEW Research Center, ideological thinking is now much more closely aligned with partisanship than in the past. As a result, ideological overlap between the two parties has faded. Today, 92% of Republicans are to the right of the median Democrat, and 94% of Democrats are to the left of the median Republican. And this divide could very well have been the driving force of this election.
“I’m not voting Trump. I’m voting Republican. Most people vote down party lines,” Matt LeLanch, a registered SC Republican, said at the first Republican hosted debate party aboard the USS Yorktown. “I think most people already know who they’re going with.”
LeLanch may be correct. According to the Pew Research Center, a nonpartisan fact tank, only 39% of voters are registered as independent as opposed to the 55% who identify as Democrat or Republican. And while independent numbers have steadily increased over time, they’re still in the minority. Those who are registered to the major parties aren’t likely to flip either. And that’s by design.
“Unfortunately democracy isn’t the end goal,” Piereson said. “Voters are the parties’ natural resources. And just like a company will fight to hold onto oil, parties will fight
to hold onto voters.”
“I’d vote for Clinton even if she didn’t show up tonight,” James Lewis, a registered Democrat said at the SC Democratic debate viewing party. “I hope she gets through to the undecided voters. But the smart ones are already voting for her.”
Several polls asking who won the debate were conducted. Many of them conflict with one another. CNN’s post-debate poll, compiling responses from 521 people with a 10% Democratic skew, found that Clinton was the winner. 62% of respondents said she performed better than her opponent. Just 27% chose Trump, leaving 11% undecided. That said, TIME magazine’s poll suggests that 55% of voters believed Trump won, with only 45% siding with Clinton. What’s clear, however, was that based on what was said during the debates, neither ardent Republicans nor Democrats switched sides.