Our Presidential debates are a unique part of our electoral system that came into existence by historical happenstance that gives the voter an interesting side by side comparison of the two candidates. But do the debates actually matter?
In a word, no. In two words, well maybe. In three, the timing does.
One word - No. The political science literature on this is pretty conclusive. The debates do not affect the outcome of the election. Period.
Two words - Well, maybe. On occasion, there are moments in the debates that are remembered: George H.W. Bush looking at his watch; Nixon looking sweaty and uncomfortable; Reagan's "there you go, again." Did these moments change anyone's mind on who to vote for? Did voters think of these moments when pulling a lever at the ballot box? Would have these moments changes the ultimate outcome of the election? Across the board, probably not.
But what about 2000 when the election was so close that it literally came down to a handful of voters in Florida. If Al Gore had not done his infamous sigh, would he picked up enough votes to win? That is hard to say.
Three words - The timing does. What matters is when the debates are, not what happens at the debates. Mistakes can happen. There can be winners and losers in public opinion. Despite it though, a week is a long time in an election. Given time, any candidate can recover and get back on message.
Reagan soundly beat Carter in the only debate in 1980, which was held a week before the election. It was the last word on the campaign and it was decisive. Carter had no time to respond and went down in history as a failed one-term president. There are many other reasons that can be pointed to on why Carter lost, but this lesson was remembered so strongly by both sides that neither party has wanted to have an election so close to election day again. Both sides want to control their own closing argument - the Clinton negotiators were insistent about this point and it has continued on ever since.
Only now, election day has moved up - metaphorically speaking. Early voting has already begun throughout the country. People are watching the debates and then pulling the voting levers almost immediately afterwards.
Millionaires thinking of making large donations could decide not to as too many people have already voted after making up their mind due to a poor debate performance. It's a strategic decision not to waste money on a lost cause. That could deprive a candidate of money and resources down the home stretch. A bad performance can become a self-fulfilling prophecy that the candidate is going to lose.