Six tips for understanding the debates

Experts across campus provide insight into what to look out for while watching the debates this fall, including the second debate scheduled to be at Washington University Sunday, October 9. Check out for more information.

Greg Magarian
Gregory Magarian

1. The role of these debates

“This, of course, is an unusual election. Both candidates are very well known. The cliché at this point, which polling bears out to some extent, is that both candidates are deeply unpopular. In these circumstances, I think the debates will help a lot of voters decide which candidate is simply more palatable. One of them is going to be president, so rejecting both isn’t a practical option. Most voters have decided for whom they will vote, but the debates will affect their enthusiasm, and the debates will help undecided voters choose the lesser evil (or maybe even the greater good).”

— Gregory Magarian, professor of law, studies free speech, the law of politics and the law of religion.

Steven S. Smith
Steven S. Smith

2. Recognize other influences

“Frequently, the person who seems to have made the strongest arguments isn’t seen as the winner. The arguments are just the cognitive side of the debate. There’s also an emotional side. Who seems to look and behave like a leader? Who is confident and who seems unsure? These kinds of impressions make a difference, the most famous example being the 1960 debate between Kennedy and Nixon. Those who listened to the debate on the radio thought that Nixon had won. But those who had seen it on television thought that Kennedy had won. Nixon probably won on debater’s points, but he was perspiring, looked unsure, and was feeling a little under the weather, whereas Kennedy looked cool and collected. It helped Kennedy’s cause greatly.”

— Steven S. Smith is the Kate M. Gregg Distinguished Professor of Social Science, professor of political science and director of the Weidenbaum Center on the Economy, Government, and Public Policy. He has also worked on Capitol Hill and at the Brookings Institution.

Julia Staffel
Julia Staffel

3. Know the pros and the cons

“Suppose there are a bunch of really good ­reasons someone comes up with for some conclusion or some course of action. It’s always a good idea to ask yourself if there are better reasons for the ­opposite. If you haven’t looked at both the pros and the cons, you’re always risking missing something; because no ­matter how good your reasons are, the reasons on the other side might be even stronger.”

— Julia Staffel, assistant professor in the Department of Philosophy, studies formal and traditional epistemology, or the nature of rational and irrational beliefs.

Caroline Moore
Caroline Moore

4. Spot bad arguments

“I would say a common flaw in arguments is that people skip steps. So one argument that the debate team had recently is that we should get rid of all nuclear weapons. The other team said if we get all the nuclear weapons together, and we ship them off to space, no one will have them, and we won’t be able to use them. But people miss prior steps, and that’s where I really think the argument should be focused. How are we going to get all the nuclear weapons together? How are we going to get people to agree on this? How are we going to even get someone to propose this diplomatically? It sounds like a good idea, but a lot of times in debate, people miss those little real-world steps.”

— Caroline Moore, Arts & Sciences Class of 2018, is a member of the university’s debate team. In high school, she was part of her school’s first all-female debate team, which was ranked the sixth-best team in Ohio for policy debate.

5. Know your biases

“People are much more likely to scrutinize an argument very closely if it argues for a position that they disagree with. In one study, people were asked, ‘Do these findings support that gun control makes a city safer?’ When people agreed with the conclusion, they did a worse job at actually figuring out how the data was supposed to support the conclusion, whereas if they disagreed with it, they picked apart the evidence very carefully. Often we have incredibly good arguments for why everyone else is wrong, but then we never really scrutinize how good the arguments are for why we are right.”

— Julia Staffel

Andrew Reeves
Andrew Reeves

6. The benefit of the debates

“The research on the effect of debates suggests that in terms of moving votes, it’s not all that effective. If you look at polls right before a debate and right after a debate, you don’t tend to see all that much difference. But the debates, the conventions, the town halls, they’re part of the story of American politics. It’s part of the country’s tapestry. They’re powerful images, and they help us frame and figure out and digest what happened and why.”

— Andrew Reeves is an associate professor of political science and a ­research fellow at the Weidenbaum Center on the Economy, ­Government, and Public Policy. He co-authored the book The ­Particularist President: Executive Branch Policy and Political Inequality, which challenges the notion that the president represents the interests of all Americans. He teaches about American elections and voting behavior, the American presidency and executive branch politics.

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