Presidential candidates

Which Debate Will Have the Most Influence on Undecided Voters?

There are several psychological theories that predict which debate will matter most. Research on primacy effects suggests that first impressions matter more than subsequent impressions, thus supporting the notion that the first debate will have the strongest influence on voters. Research on recency effects suggests that our last experience matters most in impression formation. This would predict that the candidates’ performance in the last debate will be the most influential in persuading undecided voters. Beyond recency and primacy effects, research has also shown that people have a preference for happy endings, with improvements over time leading to a more positive final outcome than the same performance going in the opposite direction (Ross and Simonson 1991, Lowenstein and Prelec 1993). Preference for happy endings would also predict that this last debate will matter most when it comes to swaying undecided voters. There is also the fact that for the few weeks prior to the election, the media is likely to focus more on the most recent ("news") debate than the first ones.

Obama and Romney

That said, Few Decided Voters Think the Debates Will Change Their Minds, and They're Likely Right!

Debating isn’t really a relevant skill for being president or vice president, but it can affect outcomes among undecided voters. However, the vast majority of Americans who plan to vote are decided by now. Indeed, many presidential debate viewers are firmly-committed and long-ago-decided to one candidate or the other. If they already know who to vote for, why do they watch?

The Thrill of the Game Drives Most Viewers to Tune In

Let’s face it. Americans love a good game, and for most decided voters, that is what watching the presidential debates is all about. It is highly unlikely that decided voters will change their mind as the result of what happens this Monday, and they know that. After all, presidents do not debate, candidates do. Decided voters are not expecting to change their minds, but they still want to watch the drama unfold. For most of us, the motive is similar to why we watch sports. We want to see an exciting game! It can be fun (or painful) to see if our team will win (or lose). We want to see our team make that goal, knock it out of the park, score that basket, and/or deliver that final punch.

baseball knock it out of the park
basket ball slam dunk

It isn’t all about rooting for our own candidate. Indeed, many voters are more passionately against the person that they are not voting for than for the person they are voting for. Thus, it is painful when the candidate we’re against nails it or our own candidate fails to punch back with a strong response when needed. There is also pleasure in watching the candidate we don’t want in the White House take a hit. This may be why more attention goes to mistakes made by candidates, rather than to their triumphs. .

boxing punch

What will help attract viewers to the final debate is that the first three debates were filled with surprises, and the results were mixed in terms of who won and who lost. Romney did far better than expected in the first debate. Obama did far worse than expected in that same debate. Even Obama repeatedly made jokes about his weak performance in the first debate at the Al Smith Memorial Foundation Dinner in NYC on Oct. 18, 2012: (Click here to watch Obama's highly entertaining speech). It seems even Obama agreed that the first debate was won by Romney.

Similarly surprising was that in the second debate, elderly Joe Biden seemed to be significantly more energetic than youthful Paul Ryan. Ryan looked distressed, while Biden laughed often and generally looked like he was having fun. Later, at the Al Smith Memorial Foundation Dinner in NYC on Oct. 18, 2012, Romney joked about Biden laughing at just about anything: (Cllick here to watch Romney's highly entertaining speech). Jokes aside, most people agreed that the winner in round three was Biden.

Joe Biden Paul Ryan

As a result of the surprises in the first presidential debate and the only vice presidential debate, the third debate had high stakes. Obama seemed far more engaged, perhaps because he knew he had to be. Romney lost a few points, and in one case had to be corrected by the debate moderator, Candy Crowley of CNN, after encouragement by President Obama to fact check: (Click here to view that moment of the debate). Most agreed that the winner in round three was Obama.

In short, the mixed results for each “team” make the final “game” of the season that much more exciting! Still, in a situation where neither presidential candidate will have won all three presidential debates, one can’t help but wonder which debate will have the most impact on undecided voters. If we look to psychology, most of the evidence points to the final debate.

Will this final debate seal the deal on who will be our next president? That is hard to know. All we can be sure of is that most debate viewers are already decided, so most people tuning in will be far more concerned with their candidate winning the debate than with learning anything new about either candidate’s stand on the issues. Perhaps one way to predict who will be the next president will be to see which candidate looks happiest at the end of the final debate. This wouldn't be a scientific method of predicting the winner, but I suspect there is a better than 50% chance it will work.  

Obama and Romney


Ross, William T. & Simonson, Itamar (October/December 1991). Evaluations of pairs of experiences: A preference for happy endings. Journal of Behavioral Decision Making, 4(4), 273–282.

Loewenstein, George F. & Prelec, Drazen (January 1993). Preferences for sequences of outcomes. Psychological Review, 100(1), 91-108.

Related Posts on the Psychology of the 2012 Presidential Election:

Most Voters Are Irrational, Which Is a Good Thing!

Which Emotions Will Have the Most Effect on Voters?

Voting is not All About Economic Self Interest: Why Romney Was Wrong About that 47%

You are reading

Your Money and Your Heart

Investment Advice Based on the Latest Behavioral Research

What can investor psychology teach us about managing our money and our emotions?

Nine Lessons from Mad Men: The Emotional Cost of Dishonesty

How our lies hurt us and how to repair the damage caused by dishonesty

8 Tips for Using Emotion to Make Your Resolutions Stick!

Pain, Pleasure, Charity and Social Media Can All Help You Keep Your Commitments