By Sabrina L. Schaeffer

The current debates are critical in informing voters, influencing public opinion, and shaping the campaign landscape.

Campaigns may have competing views and strategies about how to win an election, but a critical part of any candidate's success is his or her 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 candidates a bit better in the way citizens will know the one who becomes 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 on the policies and positions they take and on who they are as people. This is especially true when we are talking about primaries, in which the candidates have similar political philosophies and policy agendas. As I assess the candidates at this point, I'm not solely interested in their policy prescriptions. Rather, I'm interested in supporting the person with whom I most connect.

For many voters, this feeling of connection flows from different attributes. It may have something to do with candidates' 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 a lectern. Do they look confident as leaders? 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 with former Texas Gov. Rick Perry, who was perceived to be a strong candidate early in the 2012 election, but whose support dissipated after disappointing debate performances. Similarly, many experts thought Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker would be the Republican front-runner this time around before his lackluster performance in the early debates.

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 that of some of his more outspoken counterparts - that has propelled him so far.

Perhaps more important than the connection an individual viewer makes with a candidate while watching a debate is the media analysis that follows. 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 whom 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 who tune in, most will not. For the individuals who don't watch, the discussion and dissection of the debate by trusted sources - whether the Wall Street Journal editorial page or the Today show or their hairdresser - can have a dramatic effect on public opinion. What voters 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 with citizens, reframe the issues, and shape voters' views on both policy ideas and politicians. 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 (www.iwf.org). She wrote this for InsideSources.com.