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Political Scientist Ben Berger Examines the Impact of Debates

Ben Berger smiling outside

KYW Newsradio: ‘Do presidential debates change minds anymore?’

On the eve of the final presidential debate, Associate Professor of Political Science and Executive Director of the Lang Center for Civic & Social Responsibility Ben Berger joined KYW Newsradio to discuss the history of televised debates and whether they have been able to change voters’ minds during this election cycle.

“Debates can make some difference, but did they make a big difference to voters in 2016 or will they this year?” he asks. “I think it’s pretty unlikely because the number of undecided voters is pretty low.”

Berger notes that recent debates have departed from the format of early ones, such as the first televised debate between Richard Nixon and John F. Kennedy in 1960.

“These are 30- and 60-second answers that candidates are giving … and it’s really rare to hear someone go for the whole 60 seconds, at least without being interrupted,” he says. “This is so different from the Nixon-Kennedy debate, which had very long-form answers. … It’s a very substantive debate with very long, informed, and informative answers. It’s not the format we’re given now where we think about what makes for good TV and what will keep eyeballs on it.” 

Berger also argues that the skills required to “win” a debate are not relevant to serving as president, and therefore debates tell us very little about how a candidate will actually govern. Regarding his dream debate format, Berger describes an event he likens to the annual NBA All-Star Weekend Skills Challenge, in which players are tested on their ball-handling, passing, and shooting abilities.

“You could film the candidates actually having to negotiate with heads of state in a simulation, talk with members of Congress, and sit with advisers,” he says. “It’s not going to happen, but if there were a video game like that, I would play it.”

Berger concludes his appearance by discussing the future of presidential debates in a country that seems at its most divided in recent memory.

“We’re so polarized because people really feel like they are members of different tribes, and emotions, gut feelings, and senses of identity come into play and it generates very few undecided voters,” he says. “If we continue eras of tribal politics in which voters pretty much know what they are going to do beforehand, then it’s certainly possible that candidates will decide not to participate in debates down the road.”

Listen to Berger’s full segment from KYW Newsradio:

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