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Do the debates make a difference in the minds of the Jamaican public?

It is reported that well over 20,000 Jamaicans tuned into this year’s staging of the political debates.

The debates which are put on by the Jamaica Debates Commission, while not an intrinsic part of the
local election process,though some stakeholders are lobbying for them to be, are said to be critical in helping undecided voters; those who tend not to be partial to any political ideology or party, to make up their minds.

However, do the debates really assist in helping undecided voters?

According to chairman of the debates commission, Noel DaCosta, exit polls conducted from the last debates in 2007- more than a decade ago – revealed that 67% of those polled said that watching the televised broadcast helped them to decide.

More interestingly, daCosta speaking at the commission’s press conference on Saturday (August 22) said that exit polls showed that 30% actually changed their voting intentions after watching.

“We were surprised when we saw that number, we were looking for like 4% or 5% or 6%. But in the debates that we have done in 2007, 2011, and in the local government debates we found a similar trend,” said daCosta.

“So we do feel that the debates made not only a difference, but a significant difference,” added daCosta.

Data out of the United States seems to agree with the data gleaned from local exit polls, showing that Americans like Jamaicans use debates to learn more about their candidates.

“Americans of all ages said debates were their favorite election information source, outranking “watching broadcast interviews or seeing the candidates in person,” “published positions on key issues,” and “news coverage of presidential campaigns,” wrote journalist Francie Diep in 2017.

However,similar US data suggests that outside of helping undecided voters, debates have very mixed results in changing the minds of die-hard supporters; but if the political candidate makes a serious blunder this can have a devastating impact.

Political scientist, Andrea M.L. Perrella, out of Canada’s Wilfrid Laurier University said that debates tend to equalize candidates explaining that all publicity tends to be good publicity.

“Generally, everybody comes out of a debate better off…. As we have learned from Hollywood, any publicity is good publicity, As long as we’re talking about the candidates, we’re thinking about the candidates, and that thinking process may elevate the evaluations. The less we know, the more we are prone to render a negative evaluation,” Perrella told the Pacific Standard’s Tom Jacobs.

However, most studies seem to conclude that candidates can be seriously impacted and tend to fall behind in the polls if there performance was generally viewed as weak as opposed to controversial.

Jamaica Debates 2020 continue on Thursday (August 27) when two of the island’s sharpest economic minds, Minister of Finance Dr Nigel Clarke and Opposition spokesman on finance Mark Golding square off.

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