Many establishment Republicans and Democrats like to argue that third-party candidates are not usually included in the major televised Presidential debates because there simply aren’t enough Americans interested in hearing about alternatives to the two-party political solutions. But a study from the University of Michigan suggests that the major political parties have a real interest in keeping third-party candidates off the stage because “apathetic or ambivalent voters” tend to pick a candidate based heavily on televised debate performance.
“Viewing debates significantly increased polarization among those who go into the debate with very little candidate preference or attitude and have no strong opinions either way,” said Ben Warner, assistant professor of communication who studies political conversation at MU. “The good thing is we feel that moderates make up the group of voters that needs to shift toward one candidate or another.”
Researchers surveyed potential voters who viewed the debates in the 2000, 2004, 2008 and 2012 Presidential elections as well as the Vice Presidential debates in 2008 and 2012 to determine how political attitudes changed pre- and post-debate.
Those who strongly supported a particular candidate going in to the debates usually exhibited little change in preference, according to the research. But moderates and other voters with no strong preference usually picked a candidate based heavily on the performance of the debaters.
“Despite the white noise of social networks and media, debates truly do make a difference because they are the single biggest electoral event with the largest audience. Because both sides have equal time to make their cases, debates are the most balanced message voters receive over the course of a campaign,” Warner said. “If debates move more moderates into the conversation and help get them more engaged in the political process that’s a positive thing because it dilutes the vitriol usually associated with the electoral conversation.”
Unfortunately, since 2000, the Republican- and Democratic-controlled Commission on Presidential Debates has required that candidates reach 15 percent in national polls to participate in the Presidential debates. Without the massive corporate campaign funding and media focus afforded to the major Party candidates leading up to the debates, the threshold is almost always exclusionary to outsiders who, according to the aforementioned study, could sweep up supporters by simply winning over moderates while sharing the stage with the mainstream candidates.
To learn more about how Democrats and Republicans unfairly control the debates, visit Open Debates.