Sept. 25, 2016 9:00 a.m. ET
One-third of voters say the presidential debates will be very important in helping them decide whom to support for president, with slightly more Republicans than Democrats saying so, a new Wall Street Journal/NBC News poll has found.
Some 34% of registered voters said the set of three presidential debates that start on Monday in New York would be extremely or quite important to their decision.
Among Republicans, 37% said the debates would be important to them, while 31% of Democrats said the same.
About two-thirds of voters said the debates would be only somewhat important to their voting decision or not important at all.
The first of the presidential debates comes as the campaign heads into the home stretch, with Democratic nominee Hillary Clintonnarrowly leading Republican Donald Trump in opinion polls. The election is shaping up as a lesser-of-two-evils choice for many voters, as the Journal/NBC News poll found that the two major-party candidates are viewed negatively by large swaths of the electorate.
The debates give the candidates a chance to make a better impression before a broad national audience, including many who are just beginning to consider their options.
Voter groups that seem poised to pay the most attention include several that Mrs. Clinton is counting on to win. Some 49% of Hispanics, 42% of African-Americans and 39% of voters under age 35 say the debates will be extremely or quite important to them.
But two other voting blocs important to Mrs. Clinton are showing low interest in the debates, suggesting that their voting decisions are already set. Some 74% of liberals and 71% of white women with college degrees said the debates would be only somewhat important or not important at all.
Some of the most attentive viewers of the Clinton-Trump debates may be supporters of a candidate not on the stage: 44% of people supporting Libertarian candidate Gary Johnson consider them very important.
Melissa Huber, 39, a day-care provider in Oklahoma, is considering supporting Mr. Johnson but might be persuaded to back one of the major-party candidates, instead.
“I feel like they are both bad choices,” she said. “I’m hoping that through the debate one of them will come out as a preferred option.”
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Ms. Huber said she is more inclined to support Mr. Trump over Mrs. Clinton and that the best thing he could do in the debate to win her over was to “show a little decorum. Show that he can be presidential.”
Arnitress Dowdy, 39, an African-American who hasn’t settled on a candidate, is inclined to support Mrs. Clinton and is hoping to hear her address issues of race and police violence in the wake of the turmoil in Charlotte, N.C.
“I’m not sure who is really well equipped; I just need to hear more,” said Ms. Dowdy, a mother of two in New York. “I know she has advocated for children. I want to know what she will do so things will calm down.”
The television audience for Monday’s debate is expected to break records. But it may not change a record-breaking number of minds, the Journal/NBC News poll suggests. While one-third of voters say the debates will be important, only 11% of voters are the most persuadable. These voters say the debates will be important and that they are undecided in their choice, are currently backing a third-party candidate or only leaning toward Mr. Trump or Mrs. Clinton.
For all the drama surrounding the Clinton-Trump matchup, the level of interest in these debates isn’t very different than in previous presidential elections. The share of voters who said the debates were important was 38% in 2012, 31% in 2004 and 36% in 2000, close to the 34% of this year’s voter pool.
The survey of 1,000 registered voters was conducted Sept. 16-19. The poll’s margin of error was plus or minus 3.1 percentage points.
Write to Janet Hook at firstname.lastname@example.org
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