Republican presidential candidate Sen. John McCain's decision to skip tomorrow night's debate with his Democratic rival, Sen. Barack Obama, at the University of Mississippi could be a huge mistake, according to a new study by Havas media agency MPG and CNN's Advertising Sales and Research Group. With less than 45 days to the election and the polls still showing a close race, the study found that voters are putting a lot of significance on what transpires in the presidential debates.
Influencing final decision
The study finds that not only does a strong majority (78%) of voters plan on tuning in to the debates, 54% of voters said the debates will help influence their final decision about who to vote for.
More important for Mr. McCain, 50% of the "undecided" voters, a group he is hoping to win over, said what takes place in the debates would determine their final decision. And by the way, the economy, which would probably end up a major point of discussion in the debate, was the most important issue for voters taking part in the poll. Some 80% ranked it first, followed by utility rates/gas prices (70%), taxes (63%), the war in Iraq (63%) and health care/insurance/prescription drugs (62%).
"There's going to be disappointment among most voters, including voters who are leaning toward McCain [if he doesn't attend the debate]," said Joe Abruzzo, director-research at MPG. His colleague, Diane Denesowicz, director of the research consultancy, likened the debates to consumers taking out a car for a test drive before making a purchase.
"It's a desire where once you get down to making a final decision you want to have some personal, unfiltered feel for what the candidate is all about," she said. "In the end it's about testing it and seeing if you like it in the feel of your hand ... and that's why TV debates ended up being No 1. in the survey."
When asked "Which of the following, if any, provide you with specific, detailed information about the candidates, their positions, or proposals?" and "Which of the following, if any, helps you make your final decision on who to vote for?" most respondents cited the debates.
Biggest source of information
The survey revealed that watching the debates (53%) would be voters' biggest source of information on the candidates, followed by TV news (49%), the conventions (38%), appearances on TV shows (36%) and discussions on TV talk shows (36%). TV ads (29%) and newspaper ads (17%) ranked 10th and 15th on the list, respectively.
More than half (53%) of those surveyed also said that watching the debates would help play a role in making their final decision. TV news (34%), discussion with family members (32%), following the conventions (32%) and discussion with friends (29%) rounded out the top five, while TV ads (18%) and newspaper ads (10%) landed in the 10th and 16th spot, respectively.
Even though more than half of respondents said the debates would influence them, the vast majority have already made up their minds. Eighty-six percent said they were prepared to vote for a candidate if the election were held today, while 14% said they were undecided or unsure. The study found that those "undecided" voters tend to be less engaged in the campaign than those who knew how they planned to vote, with only 65% of undecides saying they intended to watch the debates. Of the people who said they are already decided on either Mr. McCain or Mr. Obama, some 81% said they would still watch the debates.
Those who won't change their minds
Moreover, the study found that 59% of those who had already selected Mr. McCain or Mr. Obama said they were "absolutely certain" they won't change their choice. Another 20% said they were "somewhat unlikely" to change. That leaves a group of about 1 in 5 voters who either admitted they may change their current choice or weren't sure.
The online survey polled 1,166 people from 24 states identified as either "battleground states" such as Ohio and Michigan; "leaning Obama states," such as Washington and New Jersey; and "leaning McCain states," such as North Carolina and Montana.