Televised debates rarely affect the outcome of a presidential election.
That’s the opinion of University of Virginia political scientist Dr. Larry Sabato as President Donald Trump and former Vice President Joe Biden are set to face off tonight in Cleveland, Ohio.
“Of late, debates don’t matter very much, because we the people, are so polarized,” Sabato said Thursday during a webinar.
He is the founder of the U.Va. Center for Politics and editor and chief of the Sabato’s Crystal Ball newsletter.
“We just tune in to cheer for our side. That’s what we do. Almost nobody changes their mind,” Sabato said. “Maybe these [debates] will have a different impact. You never know, when Donald Trump is in a debate. But if people haven’t made up their mind after five years of Donald Trump, including the  campaign, they probably aren’t going to be voting.”
People will be watching Biden closely tonight as he has made several verbal gaffes during the course of the Democrats’ nomination process and the presidential campaign. Trump has asserted that Biden lacks mental acuity and is unfit to be president.
But Sabato says Biden, who is 77, is a better debator than he’s given credit for. He notes that in 2012, it was Biden who got the best of a much younger GOP vice presidential candidate Paul Ryan in a televised debate.
Biden’s performance came after President Barack Obama turned in a subpar performance in his first debate with Republican Mitt Romney.
“Joe Biden is a better debator than he’s given credit for,” Sabato said. “I don’t know that he’s going to be that bad. I do think he has to go in with a message that’s deliberate. It can’t just be anger at the things Trump is saying. Trump is going to try to provoke him. It isn’t hard, given the things that Trump says to anybody. That’s not the way to conduct a debate.”
In the history of televised debates, which started in 1960, at least three have played pivotal roles in affecting the outcome in November.
The most notable was in 1960, when a debate between Democrat John F. Kennedy and Republican Richard Nixon catapulted Kennedy to the presidency.
Sabato said the younger Kennedy understood the power of television and he prepared as if he were about to appear on a TV?show.
Nixon, on the other hand, was recovering from a knee infection when he took the stage for the initial debate. Kennedy looked more fit and sharper and the election quickly turned in his favor.
“John F. Kennedy would not have been president had it not been for the debates, particularly the first one,” Sabato said.
Then, in 1976, a gaffe by Republican Gerald Ford in a televised debate probably cost him the election against Democrat Jimmy Carter.
Ford, trailing in the polls, pushed for the debates to prove to the American people that he was more knowledgeable and experienced than Carter, who was a one-term governor in Georgia.
But Ford made a gaffe in reference to occupation in Eastern Europe by the former Soviet Union. Ford spent days trying to correct his mistake, making it a lingering news event.
Ironically, in a visit to the Ford Presidental Library in Ann Arbor, Mich., Sabato said he found internal polling papers showing that Ford was gaining on Carter and would have likely overtaken him if it had not been for the debate gaffe.
Four years later, it was Republican Ronald Reagan who turned the tables on Carter in a debate.
In 1980, the country was mired in the Iran hostage crisis and a sagging economy. Reagan used a televised debate to make the election a referendum on Carter by asking the American people: “Are you better off than you were four years ago?’
Reagan won the election by a landslide.
In tonight’s debate, Sabato said Biden will likely try to provoke Trump into making controversial statements.
“Trump knows what he wants to say. His problem is going to be that if Biden can provoke him just enough, the most unattractive side of Donald Trump will be put on display, and I think we all know what I?am talking about. Very unattractive,’ Sabato said.
Sabato’s Crystal Ball election ratings have been updated. It gives Biden a 269-203 advantage in the Electoral College, with 270 needed to win. Four states with 66 electoral votes are still labeled as toss-ups — Arizona, Florida, North Carolina and Wisconsin.
RealClear Politics, which is an average of polls, gives Biden a current edge in each of those states.
In its Senate ratings, the Crystal Ball now shows the Senate deadlocked at 49. Races in North Carolina and Iowa may decide which party controls the chamber, according to the Crystal Ball.
RealClear Politics shows Democrat candidates holding an edge in Iowa and North Carolina.