“You are spinning and you are not fair”, Jan Peter Balkenende snapped at Wouter Bos in 2006. “Now you’re doing it again,” said Diederik Samsom to Mark Rutte in 2012. Two moments from party leader debates that had a major impact on the course of the elections. Or not? How big is the influence of television debates on the final vote of people really?
Negligible in most cases, says a new Harvard Business School study. Two political economists scrutinized 62 US and European elections and found, on average, ‘no effect whatsoever’ of the TV debates on voter preferences. Even when the NOS presents them with the Dutch examples, they stand their ground: “Although it is an average effect, the debates in our study did not contribute to determining their choice for any group of voters.”
The study shows that 17 to 29 percent of voters do not yet have a final preference two months before an election. This group is mainly guided by their impression of the candidates and their opinion on specific social themes. But ask them just before and just after a televised debate, and you won’t see any meaningful differences whether you look in the US, the Netherlands or Italy.
That is easy to understand, says professor of political communication Claes de Vreese of the University of Amsterdam: “Most studies find few effects of television debates. The viewers of such debates often already have an idea of what they want to vote for.”
But that does not mean that the debates have no effect whatsoever, says De Vreese. First, much of this kind of research is done in the US, where only two parties are seriously competing. “The average voter doesn’t just flip between Republicans and Democrats,” he says. “In the Netherlands, people can switch more easily, but within the same pond. From GroenLinks to D66, for example.”
All kinds of discussions arise around the debate, in the media, on social media and between people. “They reach a larger audience, and also a different audience. Moreover, the media has a strong tendency to declare winners and losers. That message also reaches a much larger audience.” And the perception of who is the winner does influence voter preference.
This may also explain why the TV debates during the 2012 elections seemed to have a major influence on people’s voting behaviour: they had a clear winner and loser. But what ultimately determines people’s choice: the debate or the reporting? “That is ultimately a philosophical question,” says De Vreese. It is almost impossible to separate the two in studies.”
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