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Presidential debates make headlines, but do they win votes?

On Tuesday, President Trump and former Vice President Joe Biden will face-off in the first presidential debate, which is being billed as a potential “game changer.” Special Correspondent Jeff Greenfield looks at the history of presidential debates and tells us why evidence suggests that the impact of these widely watched events may be overstated.

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  • Hari Sreenivasan:

    Tuesday night, Donald Trump and Joe Biden meet in the first of their three scheduled debates. They're being billed as potential game changers, potentially decisive events. But is that what history says?

    We asked Special Correspondent Jeff Greenfield to answer that question, and he begins with a reminder of the images that make up the history of these events.

  • Jeff Greenfield:

    This is what every history of Presidential debates features…moments, like Richard Nixon's drawn face from the very first one, in 1960. President Ford prematurely liberating Poland in 1976.

  • Jeff Greenfield:

    Ronald Reagan's classic closing argument in 1980:

  • Ronald Reagan:

    Are you better off than you were four years ago?

  • Jeff Greenfield:

    And his quip about this age after a disastrous first debate in 1984.

  • Ronald Reagan:

    I will not for political purposes expose my opponents' youth and inexperience.

  • Jeff Greenfield:

    There was President Bush looking at his watch in 1992 suggesting impatience… Or Al Gore, "stalking" George W. Bush in 2000. And from 2016, endless jabs between Clinton and Trump.

  • Donald Trump:

    Look, Putin—

  • Chris Wallace:

    Wait, but…

  • Donald Trump:

    —From everything I see, has no respect for this person.

  • Hillary Clinton:

    Well, that's because he'd rather have a puppet as president of the United States.

  • Donald Trump:

    No puppet. No puppet.

  • Jeff Greenfield:

    And a comment from Trump that has been heard again four years later: Do you make the same commitment that you will absolutely — sir, that you will absolutely accept the result of this election?

  • Donald Trump:

    I will look at it at the time. I'm not looking at anything now. I'll look at it at the time.

  • Jeff Greenfield:

    If past is prologue, Tuesday's debate will be watched for such moments, on the assumption that they may make or break a campaign. But whether that assumption is valid is a very different question. Hari?

  • Hari Sreenivasan:

    Jeff, what does the evidence suggest here, is that assumption valid?

  • Jeff Greenfield:

    The evidence as far as it can be discerned is that the debates don't have that much of an impact. They may have an impact for a day or two. But generally speaking, it's marginal at best. It's a very shaky assumption that these debates do more than move marginal votes. But as we saw four years ago, even a marginal shift can sometimes make a difference.

  • Hari Sreenivasan:

    So why do we think that people watch these if it ultimately doesn't matter as much to them?

  • Jeff Greenfield:

    Yeah, I think you have to make a distinction in primaries when voters may not be familiar with candidates. They may begin to form real impressions to release endless debate. Whereas a general election, a month before the election, most people know who they're voting for. Polls today show that 90% of the voters have already made up their mind.

    So the sense is that they're watching more like sporting events, you know, where you cheer on your candidate, and you boo the other candidate. And if your candidate has a bad performance, it's like your team loses a game. You don't leave the team. And that's kind of where I think we are with a lot of these debates.

  • Hari Sreenivasan:

    You know, it seems almost like the financial markets, so much of this is managing expectations. And in a way, the president's attacks on Joe Biden, his energy level, et cetera, are they setting the bar too low?

  • Jeff Greenfield:

    Well, let's see, the president has suggested that Biden is in the early stages of dementia. He's proposed a drug test because he says the only explanation for when Biden has flops is that he's on drugs. So you might think that if Biden shows up for, you know, for the debate and does not begin speaking in tongues, that'll be a victory.

    Now, just in the last 24 hours, Trump has said, well, you know, he has been an experienced debater for all those years in the Senate. But it's fair to point out that in the primaries, which we saw very uneven performances by Biden, you know, he was up, he was down, maybe the better measure is that in the two vice presidential debates he had against Sarah Palin and Paul Ryan, he was better.

    But I do think that if you see where the polls are, they've been utterly kind of almost static with Biden having a substantial lead and a reasonable lead in the battleground states that President Trump will do anything and everything he can. And as we've seen for five years, if you try to predict what Donald Trump is going to do, you know, you're in for a fool's errand.

  • Hari Sreenivasan:

    All right. Jeff Greenfield joining us from Santa Barbara. Thanks so much.

  • Jeff Greenfield:

    Thank you, Hari.

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