The importance of presidential debates & Media

The media plays a crucial role in election campaigns, encompassing a candidate's promotional materials and arranged debates. Materials directly managed by the candidate serve to shape a desired image and to criticize opponents' integrity and track record. For example, during the 2012 election, Obama's team aired a 30-second ad named 'Remember', which praised Obama's accomplishments in boosting US oil output, advocating for sustainable energy, and eliminating tax loopholes for oil corporations. Simultaneously, the ad criticized his rival, Mitt Romney, for allegedly favoring major oil companies. Most campaign ads tend to be negative, depicting opponents as untrustworthy, corrupt, or beholden to special interest groups. The iconic 'Daisy' ad from 1964 established this trend, suggesting that voting for Lyndon B. Johnson's adversary, the staunchly conservative Republican Barry Goldwater, could lead the USA into a nuclear war catastrophe.

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


Social Media

Social media has significantly changed the landscape. The majority of online users typically follow, like, or retweet candidates with similar views. Social media is seen as more effective in solidifying support rather than influencing opinions. It also enables candidates to express their views more freely.

Does social media affect election outcomes? A popular narrative holds that Twitter played a decisive role in both recent American presidential elections and the United Kingdom’s “Brexit” referendum. Many see this as part of social media’s broader influence on political polarization and the re-emergence of populist politicians in many countries. The U.S. Federal Election Commissioner, for example, has argued that Facebook “has no idea how seriously it is hurting democracy” (NPR, 2020a).

 An alternative view suggests that social media platforms are biased against conservatives ( Wall Street Journal, 2020) and that its younger, relatively left-leaning user base is unlikely to tilt elections towards right-wing politicians A study from Princeton University researchers demonstrated how fundamental an effect social media had on voting behaviour after it found that Twitter’s relatively liberal content may have persuaded voters with moderate views to vote against Donald Trump in 2020.  However, there is limited evidence that can be used to evaluate these contrasting (causal) claims. 

Social media platforms give candidates a low-cost opportunity to compete, communicate and make themselves known. A study by Harvard Fellows Steven Levitt and Catherine Wolfram found that after “new” politicians set up a Twitter account, they experienced an increase in campaign financing. Additionally, the likes of Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez would not have built up her electoral support without her 13.4 million Twitter followers, and Barack Obama, the first black US President, has been dubbed the “first social media president,” due to the vital role it played in his campaign. In that 2008 campaign, three-quarters of internet users went online to engage with election material. The power of social media for election-related purposes has only increased since, alongside a rise in political ads on the platforms. In 2020, Joe Biden’s campaign spent $191,922,173 and Donald Trump’s spent $268,473,419 on political ads on Google and Facebook combined. 

Twitter has been particularly useful for this, allowing users to connect and relate to candidates after seeing the likes of Pete Buttigieg’s posts about his dogs and Senator Chuck Grassley’s interest in the University of Northern Iowa Panthers games. 

The Fox News Effect: Partisan Mainstream Media

In the past few years, there has been an increase in partisanship within the mainstream media. Networks like Fox (Republican) and MSNBC (Democrat) often show a bias towards one end of the political spectrum, with news coverage also displaying a partisan slant. For example, in 2016, conservative media focused on Hillary Clinton's email server controversy, while liberal media highlighted Donald Trump's verbal gaffes.

March 2024 The appointment of a pro-Trump Republican and advocate of the 'big lie' that Trump had won the 2020 election, Ronna McDaniel led to a protest by NBC staff. Amid a chorus of on-air protests from some of the network’s biggest stars, NBC announced that former Republican National Committee chair Ronna McDaniel will no longer be joining the network as a paid contributor. In a memo, NBCUniversal News Group Chairman Cesar Conde told staff that he had listened to “the legitimate concerns” of many network employees. “No organization, particularly a newsroom, can succeed unless it is cohesive and aligned,” he wrote. “Over the last few days, it has become clear that this appointment undermines that goal.” Ultimately she was seen as unacceptable because of her views.

Presidential Debates : Significance

While the first televised debate was 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.

·      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.

·    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.” 

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.