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Do Presidential Debates Persuade Voters?

MINNEAPOLIS (WCCO) -- On Tuesday night, the two candidates for president will square off the debate stage for the first time. Both are already very well-known politicians among an increasingly polarized electorate.

So do debates persuade voters? Good Question.

According to Pew Research Center, 63% of voters said the debates were "very important" or "somewhat important" in helping voters decide how to vote. But, only 10% of voters said they made their decision during or right after the debate.

"The bottom line is no," said Paul Goren, Chair of the Political Science Department at the University of Minnesota. "What it can do is motivate partisans to come out on Election Day."

This election year, many people have already committed to a candidate. Some have even voted before the first debate will air.

"The debates can cause a relatively small, but important shift in the voter behavior," said Miki Huntington, faculty member in the political science department at Minneapolis College. "Even a small shift might affect a swing state one way or the other and can have an impact on the overall outcome of the election."

In the past some poll numbers have changed slightly post-debate. According to Goren, there might be a short-term increase, but the numbers return to pre-debate.

"It's hard to tell," said Huntington. "On the one hand, there might have been a little bump but that was because of a meme-worthy content or something a lot of folks watched and got attention that way. Or was it some kind of substantive contact or shift that really prompted folks to change their behavior."

In his blog, Hamline University political scientist David Schultz argues presidential debates do matter and cites several examples of memorable moments in the debates.

"It is impossible to prove that any one of the moments changes the trajectory of the presidential election, but they stand out as images that viewers took away and considered as they voted," Schultz wrote.

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