Baseball might be over, but we’ve recently entered a new sport season: debate season. While each presidential primary debate generates a lot of chatter among the punditry, many voters might be wondering: Do these debates even matter?

It’s easy to understand why some think debates don’t affect an election that’s a year away. Certainly I’d be reluctant to argue that a debate held a year out does anything directly to influence voters next November. But these debates are critical in informing voters, influencing public opinion and shaping the campaign landscape.

Campaigns may have competing views and strategies about how best to win an election, but a critical part of any candidate’s success is their willingness and ability to engage with voters. And debates provide an opportunity for candidates to, in effect, meet with the American people. Debate viewers get to know each candidate a bit better, in the way we will know them if they should become president — as a TV personality, for lack of a better term.

The fact is, like so many Americans I rely on the debates to form my opinion about candidates — both in the policies and positions they take and who they are as people. And especially when we are talking about primaries, where the candidates have similar political philosophies and policy agendas, as I assess the candidates, I’m not solely interested in their policy prescriptions.  Rather, I’m interested in supporting the candidate who I most connect with.

For many voters, this feeling of connection flows from many different attributes.  It may have something to do with their religious convictions, their style, the way they do or don’t reference their family. People react viscerally to attributes that we would never consciously prioritize, such as how a candidate stands at the podium. Do they look confident like a leader? Or a little uncomfortable?

And we know from experience that many candidates come across very differently on paper than they do on the debate stage. This was certainly the case for Rick Perry, perceived to be a strong candidate in the early 2012 election, but whose support dissipated after disappointing debate performances. Similarly many experts thought Scott Walker would be the Republican front-runner this time around, but his lackluster performance on stage demonstrated he wasn’t the right candidate.

And certainly some candidates shine on the debate stage and attract the attention of voters who might have otherwise overlooked them.  Few thought that the political neophyte and remarkably low-key Dr. Ben Carson would have connected so deeply with audiences. But it may just be this subdued style — in contrast to some of his more outspoken counterparts — that has propelled him so far.

Perhaps even more important than the connection an individual viewer makes with a candidate while watching a debate is the effect of the media analysis that follows. The fact is, it’s widely understood among political science researchers that so-called elite discourse can tremendously influence public opinion. That’s just a fancy way of saying that voters form opinions about complicated issues — like who to support for president — in part based on cues from trusted political actors, media, or just more engaged friends and family.

So while the debate itself may be useful to those that tune in, most will not. And for these individuals who didn’t watch the debates — which tends to be a majority of voters — the discussion and dissection of the debate from trusted sources, whether the Wall Street Journal editorial page or the “Today” show or their hair dresser, can have a dramatic effect on public opinion. What a voter might hear the following morning on a news program or pick up from the cover of a favorite magazine can easily shift their perspective on a particular candidate.

In the end debates are an opportunity to engage voters, to reframe the issues, and shape voters’ views on both policy ideas and political actors. They provide us with an important window into the strengths and weaknesses of our prospective political leaders, so viewers and candidates are wise to take them seriously.

Sabrina L. Schaeffer is executive director of the Independent Women’s Forum ( Readers may send her email at [email protected]. She wrote this for