The importance of presidential debates

The influence of the media in the presidential election campaign is a much debated subject, with claims that the media are more interested in who is winning — termed 'horse-race' coverage — than in the actual issues. However, the televised presidential debate has come to occupy an important place in the electoral calendar.

2016 Debates analysed

CNN Documentary


While the first televised debate was clearly newsworthy and headline grabbing, there is compelling evidence showing that these televised contests matter little to voters. From an historical perspective, the debates have almost certainly played an important role. In the first televised presidential election debate in 1960, a tanned, relaxed and urbane Senator John F. Kennedy met a pale and weary Vice President Richard Nixon. Studio lights, melting make up and an ill-fitting and ill-advised choice of suit combined to create a perfect storm, and Nixon was done for. One observer remarked that it appeared that he’d been embalmed “before he even died.” Commentators considered that contest to be the turning point in the campaign.

· Some argue the presidential debate is more about style than substance, encouraging sound-bite politics, with little genuine debate. Indeed the much-proclaimed victory of Romney in the first presidential debate of 2012 was more about his energy levels when compared to the widely reported 'lacklustre' appearance of Obama. In 2016 Hilary was widely seen to have performed better than Trump in all three debates, however, although she was seen to be more acceptable than Trump she was also seen to have been dull and humourless. Therefore she was seen as having failed to beat an opponent who would seem to present an easy target. Also, the gaffes that might have destroyed mainstream politicians e.g claiming that not paying tax made him 'smart' or calling Hillary a 'nasty woman' simply gave him greater coverage. The lack of attractiveness of both candidates was highlighted in the second debate when Ken Bone became a media and meme sensation rather than anything the candidates said.

  • 2015- 16 saw the increased significance of the primary debates. Trump was able to use these to contrast himself with the other politician and present himself as the anti- politics candidate. His outrageous remarks and willingness to be offensive became a trap for the news-hungry media, proving Oscar Wild's observation that 'the only thing worse than being talked about is not being talked about.' In this way, he was able to drown out the other candidates who seemed grey by contrast. Bernie Saunders did something similar to Hilary as his passion framed her as the more cautious and calculating figure. This helped to establish a theme which continued into the general election.

· It is rare for campaigns to turn on the results of presidential debates, although Reagan used the debates well to challenge the incumbent President Carter on his record in 1980, and to address concerns about his age in 1984. Famous gaffes become mythical and may not have had much effect. Although if they align with an existing negative narrative they help to confirm that narrative.

  • E.g Nixon's nervous and sweating appearance 1960- aligned with the 'Tricky Dicky' narrative

  • Ford's 'No Russian domination of Eastern Europe' aligned with the idea that he was not very clever.

  • Reagan's 'there he goes again' quip seemed to confirm that Carter had nothing new to say and was making excuses.

  • Dukakis emotionless and cold answer to a question about whether he would support the death penalty if his wife were raped and murdered- fit the theme of Dukakis being soft on crime.

  • Bush (senior) repeatedly checking his watch- fit with the 'he thinks he's got better things to do than meet real people'

  • Gore's loud sighs and odd crowding of Bush fit with the idea that frankly, he's a bit odd. This contrasted with Bush's 'regular guy' persona.

  • McCain's angry man performance aligned with the long-standing narrative that he was not mentally stable

· Presidential debates can be important in encouraging the turnout of the party faithful or turning passive supporters into active voters, as was the case with Kerry in 2004 when Gallup polling showed he closed the 8% gap on President Bush following the debates.

· Viewing figures vary a great deal but there is a generally declining audience. By 2008 this had fallen to around 50 million, although over 73 million tuned into the vice-presidential debate. 2016 saw a rise to an average of over 70 million and millions more watched on social media. In terms of influencing voters and election results, these debates might not be so important. In 2016, Hillary Clinton was ahead in every meaningful poll following each TV debate, but of course, the final election result did not reflect this lead. Betting markets, perhaps a more realistic measure of public opinion as bookmakers have more to lose than pollsters if they get it wrong, also point to the debates mattering less than we might think. There was significant movement, for example, in punter confidence towards Democratic candidate John Kerry in 2004 when George W. Bush allegedly (though it was never proven) wore an earpiece to assist with his answers. Barack Obama overcame his “rookie” status to attract the gamblers’ dollars in 2008, but this support deserted him in 2012 when he produced a sub-par performance against Mitt Romney in 2012.Finally, those doubting the value of impact of the debates might suggest that there are simply fewer voters left to convince. The ideologies underpinning the candidates and their personal traits mean there has been an ongoing process of political polarization in the US – this process turning “independent and detached voters” into “loyal party supporters”. The number of so called “swing voters” has been in decline for decades, and now averages less than 10% of those eligible to vote. Furthermore, over 6.6 million US citizens people have already submitted their postal votes – ten times more than at this stage in 2016.

People aren’t really watching debates because they’re like, ‘I’m gonna take this time and really compare these two candidates on their merits,’” says Yanna Krupnikov, a political scientist at Stony Brook University. Most people watching have already chosen their candidate, she says, and even if that candidate does not perform well, “they already have a decision as to how they’re going to vote.”

  • Overall in 2016, The debates seemed to have little significance- Hilary played a 'straight bat', not attacking Trump aggressively but allowing him enough rope to hang himself. The debates seem to have confirmed people's previous views of the candidates. However, the primary debates gave Trump the means to capture the Republican nomination.

  • It may be significant that Trump was able to mange the political agenda through social media - particularly Twitter. He also successfully promoted a narrative of, the main stream media being biased in favour of Hilary. This had the effect of allowing his supporters to insulate themselves from unfavourable reporting of his performance.

  • VP debates can reflect badly on the presidential candidate as the VP can be seen as evidence to the presidential candidate's good or poor judgment.

  • E.g Ross Perot's choice of the unknown Admiral Stockdale- who gave the impression of being an amiable but confused old chap.

  • Bush's choice of the underwhelming Dan Quayle.

  • Hilary's 'safe but boring'choice of Tim Kaine rather than a bold choice like Bernie Saunders oor Elizabeth Warren.

While the first televised debate was clearly newsworthy and headline-grabbing, there is compelling evidence showing that these televised contests matter little to voters.

The appearances of two white men aged 74 and 77 could also be key in 2020 given the continuing jibes from both sides doubting the other’s physical and mental wellbeing. Given Trump and his wife’s positive COVID tests and his wider family’s refusal to wear face masks in the studio when asked to do so, the first debate might yet prove to be of critical importance to the health of those coming into contact with them, especially in light of the increasing number of COVID cases within the Trump camp.