In the sole debate scheduled between Greg Abbott and Beto O’Rourke, frontrunner Abbott did what he needed to do—retain his supporters. Beto O’Rourke failed to do what he needed to do—win away some of Abbott’s supporters. So Abbott won the debate and thereby increased the already strong probability he’ll be re-elected Governor of Texas.
Actually, in this viewer’s opinion, at least, both Abbott and O’Rourke did equally well in both substance and style. Each knew the issues. Each was properly passionate when appropriate, and calm, rational, and judicious otherwise. Neither said nor did anything to make his respective followers rethink their support.
And therein lies the problem for O’Rourke. Going into the debate, he was trailing Abbott 38% to 47%, according to a Dallas Morning News poll. The 9-point spread separating O’Rourke from Abbott is well outside the poll’s 3% margin of error. If the best each candidate could do was to retain his own supporters, without changing the minds of his opponent’s as well, then the debate worked in Abbott’s favor. It leaves him still 9 points ahead, regardless of the quality of O’Rourke’s performance. In other words, Abbott won.
And this is the typical outcome of debates, at least between two well-known candidates. As a general rule, debates normally change few people’s minds. Rather, they strengthen the opinions people have already formed about their respective candidates. Each candidate’s viewers will normally claim their candidate won, regardless of who said what about what. Public opinion will rarely change—a benefit to the frontrunner, whoever he may be.
To be sure, under some rare circumstances a debate might affect the outcome of an election. If two candidates are running neck-and-neck, a strong performance by one of them may persuade enough of a handful of undecided voters to support him and put him over the top. For example, in 1960 John F. Kennedy defeated Richard Nixon in the popular vote by 100,000 votes out of 68,000,000 cast—a margin of roughly 0.2%. Did Kennedy’s strong showing in that year’s four presidential debates contribute to the outcome? Possibly, although given the impossibility of re-running the election without the debates and seeing whether their absence would produce a different election outcome, we can never be entirely certain.
But in the Abbott-O’Rourke contest, the lead Abbott has opened up over O’Rourke is simply too great to be overcome simply by a debate performance. Probably not even a genuinely poor performance by Abbott would have weakened his position. Ronald Reagan in 1984, and Barack Obama in 2012, each performed poorly in their first debates against Walter Mondale and Mitt Romney respectively. Yet neither lost much support. Each went on to decisive electoral victories.
So with five weeks to go until Election Day (and actually a little over three weeks before early voting begins), and no further debates, it seems that Governor Abbott is well on his way to a third term. Most of the voters have made up their minds, and once a voter’s mind is set, there is little prospect of changing it. The debate did nothing other than increase the probability that the frontrunner before the debate would remain the frontrunner and win the election. Advantage: Abbott.
Malcolm L. Cross has lived in Stephenville and taught politics and government at Tarleton since 1987. His political and civic activities include service on the Stephenville City Council (2000-2014) and on the Erath County Republican Executive Committee (1990 to the present). He was Mayor Pro Tem of Stephenville from 2008 to 2014. He is a member of St. Luke’s Episcopal Church and the Stephenville Rotary Club, and does volunteer work for the Boy Scouts of America. Views expressed in this column are his and do not reflect those of The Flash as a whole.