Key message 4 – Electoral debates may be effective, especially for broadening knowledge about politicians

There is also growing evidence that debates broadcast in the pre-election period provide voters with information that influences their choices. Bidwell, Casey, and Glennerster (2019) found that showing pre-recorded debates between parliamentary candidates in Sierra Leone in the runoff to the 2012 election had positive effects on the general political knowledge of the electorate, as well as their knowledge of candidate qualifications and policy stances.

This knowledge translated into a 3.5 percentage point average increase in vote shares for the candidates who performed best during the debates, as assessed by experts. Critically, the evidence suggests that voters shifted towards candidates with whom they were better aligned (possibly because voters’ views were affected by the debates). Other work also finds that debates can affect voter decisions, although the evidence that voters reward quality is less clear. In studying parliamentary elections in Ghana, Brierley, Kramon and Ofosu (2019) found that debate segments make partisan voters more favourable toward and more likely to vote for opponent party candidates and less likely to vote for co-partisans. However, there is no direct evidence of better alignment of citizens’ votes.

Platas and Raffler (2019) studied public screenings of quasi debates prior to Uganda’s 2016 parliamentary elections and found no evidence that voters shifted votes to candidates with whom they were better aligned. However, they did find evidence that voters started supporting opposition candidates at higher rates, perhaps because they were seen as having greater competence.

Debates may thus be especially powerful in exposing voters to different sorts of candidates. An important area for future research is establishing whether this in turn results in voters selecting politicians that perform better in office.