NEW YORK – Many voters may not catch any of the televised political debates between candidates but constituents say the highlights filtered through the media offer enough detail for them to make their choice at the polls.
Experts add that regardless of whether voters are glued to their TVs for the standoffs or if they skip the showdowns altogether, voters are getting something out of the debates.
"Are people on the edge of their seat waiting for the show to start as if it were The Sopranos? No," said Peter Fenn, George Washington University professor and president of political media consultants Fenn and King Communications. "Do you have a lot of viewership and a lot of attention paid by partisans and people whose minds are made up? Sure. Does it make a difference for undecided voters? Yeah."
In fact, in some cases, voters say they want more debates, even though there is no indication that more viewers will watch them.
According to a nationwide poll released by the Debate Advisory Standards Project, 84 percent of those polled rejected the idea that debates are a waste of time. On the contrary, 74 percent said they would watch one or more of the debates for statewide office if the candidates got together three or more times. Of course, the majority also said candidates should limit the number of debates to four or fewer.
In that same poll, by a nearly 4-to-1 ratio, voters say they think more debates should be aired. This survey also revealed that the higher the office, the more helpful debates are. About 70 percent said debates for major statewide offices such as governor or U.S. senator are important, while 59 percent said more local elections such as those for the U.S. House or state legislature are very helpful.
"I think voters definitely do want debates and I think they can make a difference in elections provided that local TV networks air them," said Campaigns & Elections editor Ron Faucheux.
"I think the role the press plays is crucial," when it relays key parts of debates, Fenn added. "How that is spun can make a big difference."
Whether they have a great impact, though, depends on how tight the race is, Fenn said.
"You don't see poll numbers flip-flop by 15 points on the basis of debate very often ... The best analogy is that there are various times in a campaign where a window is opened up and people look in, and often debates can serve that purpose."
It appears that in November 2000, only about a third of voters looked through that window. An online survey conducted by Vote.com at the time found that 33 percent of those surveyed said they based their presidential votes on what they learned in political debates. But 67 percent said they did not.
But this month's debates between Florida Republican Gov. Jeb Bush and rival Democratic Tampa attorney Bill McBride may be a prime example of the influence debates can have.
The two candidates debated three times in early October. A poll conducted for the Orlando Sentinel and South Florida Sun-Sentinel released near the end of the month showed that Bush had pulled away from McBride, who had been surging after defeating former Attorney General Janet Reno in the September Democratic primary.
"It says McBride really hasn't made his case that he can do a better job," pollster Jim Kane told the Sentinel. "It doesn't mean that Bush is moving ahead, but McBride's momentum has stopped."
Though Bush was said to have had a superior performance in the debate, his late-breaking surge in the polls -- the latest one has him up by six points -- is only partly attributable to the debates, however. Only 40 percent of those who participated in the Sentinel poll followed one of the three debates on either TV or radio.
At the same time, however, if there aren't enough debates, voters often express dissatisfaction with both candidates.
Fifty-nine percent of California voters say the single debate held between incumbent Democratic Gov. Gray Davis and GOP businessman Bill Simon on Oct. 7 helped them little or not at all in deciding who to support in that race, according to a study conducted by the Public Policy Institute of California. A full 21 percent said they didn't even know the debate took place.
Only 5 percent of those surveyed said the debate lent a great deal in helping them decide for whom to vote.
"What we know from our past surveys is voters place a high value on debates, even if they don't watch them, they read about them or portions of them or hear about them or talk to other people about them afterwards," said survey and research director Mark Baldasarre.
"That just didn't occur with enough frequency this time to make a difference," he added.
Whereas the California gubernatorial candidates held only one debate, however, candidates in some other states may be going overboard.
In Vermont, leading gubernatorial contender, Lt. Gov. Doug Racine, is just ending his streak of 36 debates this campaign season. His camp says he was invited to many more by his opponents, but engaging in any more was getting to be ridiculous and taking time away from grassroots campaigning and other activities.
"We've done more debates than any other gubernatorial debates in the country," and more than New England combined, said Racine campaign spokeswoman Maggie Ryan. "I think a certain number of debates are certainly valuable to the campaign but this was just a little much."
In New Jersey, GOP U.S. Senate candidate Doug Forrester challenged late-to-the race Democratic candidate Frank Lautenberg to 21 debates in 21 days in each of the state's 21 counties. The two ended up holding their first debate Wednesday and will have a second on Saturday.