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Do debates change election outcomes?

DO POLITICAL debates between rival candidates affect the outcome of an election result?
That was a question that was recently a subject of discussion.
While political debates are often considered an integral part of a campaign strategy, at least in other countries, there is little definitive evidence on whether they affect how people vote or not.
In Sierra Leone, researchers partnered with the civil society organisation Search for Common Ground and the National Electoral Commission of Sierra Leone to evaluate how the dissemination of political information through debates impacts voter behaviour, campaign funding and the performance of elected politicians.
The results of that evaluation and the lessons learnt led the Economics Association of Zambia (EAZ) to organise a public discussion forum in Lusaka recently to argue on whether or not political debates have any impact on election outcomes.
The EAZ partnered with the Abdul Latif Jameel Poverty Action Lab (J-PAL), Innovations for Poverty Action (IPA) and International Growth Centre (ICG) in organising the public discussion which was held at Protea Hotel Arcades, Lusaka.
The J-PAL, established as a research centre at the Economic Department at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) in 2003, has grown into a global network of researchers who use randomised evaluations to answer critical policy questions in the fight against poverty.
Its executive director, Rachel Glennerster, who co-authored the results of the evaluation with Kelly Bidwell and Katherine Casey, presented the findings at the forum.
But first, a case of the United States where political debates are very popular.
A day before the first of the three presidential debates between President Barack Obama and his challenger Mitt Romney aired; the Washington Post carried a story titled ‘Do presidential debates usually matter? Political scientists say no’.
The article did argue though that history is littered with examples of debate performances that allegedly decided elections.
“There was John F Kennedy beating Richard Nixon due to the latter’s not-ready-for-prime-time scruff. There was Gerald Ford losing after asserting that the Soviet Union didn’t dominate Eastern Europe.
“There was Ronald Reagan’s ‘there you go again’ comeback to Jimmy Carter, and Lloyd Bensten’s admonition that Dan Quayle is ‘no Jack Kennedy’.
“But did any of those actually matter? The best political science says no. The polls don’t shift. Perhaps the most compelling evidence for the irrelevance of debates is that polling in past races hasn’t changed much at all following them,” the article read before citing various cases.
However, in her presentation at Protea Hotel Dr Glennerster said their study in Sierra Leone found that watching debates substantially increased political knowledge, policy alignment, and voter shares for higher-quality candidates.
The debates also encouraged politicians to invest more in their constituencies, both during the campaign and one year later.
“Overall, exposure to the debates significantly increased voters’ political knowledge and changed their voting behaviour. Candidates who participated in the debates increased campaign expenditures in communities where the debates were screened.
“The debates also caused politicians to engage with and invest more in their constituencies once they were in office,” according to their report.
Voting patterns in Sierra Leona have historically been based on ethnic ties and pre-existing party affiliations; the two largest political parties are closely associated with ethnic groups in the north or south.
In sum, the research suggested that publicising candidate debates can significantly increase voters’ political knowledge, which can then influence their vote on election day.
Political debates are a new phenomenon in Zambia; in 2001, when the presidential field was large, there was a political debate, and again in the 2015 presidential election, although the ruling party candidates in both cases did not participate.
And that is where one discussant at the public discussion forum perhaps raised a valid point.
“Depending on who the organisers of the debates are, some candidates may not feel comfortable participating. For instance, the last one was organised by a television station which was conducting highly questionable opinion polls suggesting a certain candidate was leading by about 90 percent of the votes. In future, it would help to have a credible and independent body organising the debates,” he pointed out.
Foundation for Democratic Process (FODEP) executive director MacDonald Chipenzi says although political debates are new in the country, they have proved valuable sometimes, especially at constituency level.
“For instance, in the Mangango parliamentary by-election, there was a political debate but the UPND [United Party for National Development] candidate [Godwin Putu] decided not to participate. “The PF [Patriotic Front] candidate [Rogers Lingweshi] who some despised because of his age participated and impressed a lot of people with his charisma. In the end, he won,” Mr Chipenzi argued.
“But debates are basically new in Zambia and some politicians run away for various reasons; some of them do so because they are not articulate enough or some because they prefer to campaign from door-to-door.
“However, just like the situation in Sierra Leone, people vote on party lines and not based on the candidate. There are areas where you know that the moment someone is adopted on a particular party ticket, they’ve won. Money isn’t really an issue, there was a certain candidate who poured a lot of money in a parliamentary by-election but still lost.”
But Electoral Commission of Zambia (ECZ) director Priscilla Isaac says in addressing the low voter turn-out during elections, the institution is looking at whether debates can be the answer in stimulating interest among voters.
“According to our studies, one of the causes of voter apathy is that voters don’t feel connected to their representatives; they don’t know them and only see them during elections. Also, violence especially during by-elections put people off. Zambians are peaceful and therefore do not want to be hurt for merely voting,” Ms Isaac says.
However, she still thinks voter apathy goes deeper than just voter outreach or education.
“It’s a question of whether they feel the urge to vote and not whether they are aware of the election. So, even if we get the numbers during voter registration, they have to feel the urge to vote for them to do so. And timing is also important, particularly in the rainy season.
“But politicians are the ones who need the votes, so they should work hard and get the people out to vote. So maybe, politicians haven’t done much in inspiring confidence in the electorate,” she says.
And the debate continues.

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