Primary debates can be different.
Despite all the hype, general election debates rarely, if ever, determine presidential election outcomes. If they did, Michael Dukakis and John Kerry would now be celebrated former presidents, while Hillary Clinton would be the current occupant of the Oval Office.
Most often, the impact of debates on the horse race numbers are barely perceptible. One study concluded the average impact was just a single point, while another suggested the debates with the biggest effects only changed the margin by about 4 points.
But primaries can be different. Many of the factors that limit the impact of general election debates are absent in primaries.
When partisan allegiance anchors so many political decisions, there are fewer people to move in response to general election debates.
In primaries, however, there are no partisan guideposts.
By the time the two major party nominees hit the debate stage, they’re well-known figures, having won primaries and caucuses and delivered widely covered victory speeches, as well as a few concessions. They’ve participated in primary debates, campaigned across the country and made a convention acceptance speech that much of the country saw, or at least heard about.
When the general election debates roll around, the new information voters glean constitutes a small percentage of the total impressions they’ve accumulated about the candidates.
By contrast, when relatively unknown primary candidates appear in a primary debate, each new droplet of information voters absorb represents a large proportion of their storehouse of feelings about that candidate.
One study conducted by University of Missouri professors over several cycles found 10 times the percentage of voters switching candidates after primary debates than after general election faceoffs.
At least in raw numbers, the contest most similar to this cycles’ Democratic event was the 2016 Republican primary featuring 17 candidates.
And those primary debates appeared to move the polls somewhat. Ben Carson and Carly Fiorina added about 4 points to their vote after the first debate, moving the former from fifth place to second.
After the second debate, Fiorina picked up 8 points.
Carson and Fiorina eventually fell back, while Donald Trump decided to boycott a January debate sponsored by GOP powerhouse Fox News Channel, then came in second in Iowa, first in New Hampshire, and you know the rest.
So, primary debates can move somewhat bigger numbers than their general election cousins. But how can candidates emerge?
Mainly it’s by establishing an emotional connection with voters. Trump picked up votes by carving out a unique identity while Sen. Marco Rubio(R-Fla.) lost support because he appeared to be without even a personal identity, robotically repeating canned lines.
Four years ago, Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), too, forged an emotional connection with voters. Rightly or wrongly, fairly or unfairly, like Trump, he was seen as the authentic candidate.
This time, each candidate will be looking to communicate the great line, the sharp contrast, the exciting policy proposal, the moving story or the compelling persona. Creating a lasting attachment is no mean feat though, and with 20 candidates taking the stage, it will be all the more difficult for any one of them to forge that emotional connection with the electorate.
If they don’t, and he avoids big mistakes, Joe Biden, the current front-runner, will continue to lead. But if someone other than Biden succeeds, the race could take fascinating and unpredictable turns.
The clock’s already ticking though.
Four years ago, the largest audiences for both parties were in their first debates. After that, breaking out was even harder because the audiences were smaller.
We don’t know whether this cycle will follow that same trajectory, but this week, things will start to get real.
Mellman is president of The Mellman Group and has helped elect 30 U.S. senators, 12 governors and dozens of House members. Mellman served as pollster to Senate Democratic leaders for over 20 years and as president of the American Association of Political Consultants.