TV Debates

The History of TV debates

First and possibly still the most famous American presidential debate pitted the telegenic Democrat John F Kennedy against Republican vice-president Richard Nixon. The clammy Nixon was recovering from illness and had a five o’clock shadow but refused makeup. TV viewers are said to have judged Kennedy the winner, whereas radio listeners gave it to Nixon or called it a draw. Kennedy won a narrow election.

Biden generally did badly-but his rivals did not do enough to replace him as the 'safe choice ' against Trump.

The invisible primary gets its name from the idea that most of it happens out of sight ie fund raising, party endorsements, trips to the early primary states to take part in state fairs and staw polls- but in recent elections TV debates between the candidates have become much more visible. Between 6 August 2015 and voting beginning in February 2016, there were seven televised debates between the would-be Republican candidates. This was a significant decrease on the 16 such debates held during 2011. It was in the tenth of those 2011 debates that Governor Rick Perry of Texas had a much- publicised memory loss Perry ended his 2012 presidential bid, having finished sixth in the New Hampshire primary with less than 1% of the vote.

In 2016 there was such a large field of candidates they were held in two sessions- but were soon turned into a political circus by Trump whose aggressive style and outrageous remarks captured all the headlines.

In 2020 only the Democrats had primary debates On evenings of 26th and 27th June, 2019 20 presidential hopefuls walked on stage and attempted to sell themselves as the one Democratic candidate to take on Donald Trump in the 2020 US presidential election.

Although debates change few minds- they can be disaster for a candidate who looks like an idiot.

The first 2020 presidential debate did not go well for Donald Trump. Viewers were turned off by the president’s constant hectoring of Joe Biden. And many were alarmed when he not only declined to denounce white supremacists but went so far as to tell a far-right neofascist group to “stand by.” Polling by FiveThirtyEight revealed that 50 percent of people who watched the event rated Trump’s performance as “very poor.” However, the impact was mostly to confirm people in their views of Trump and Biden.

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.

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

  • 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.

· 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.

  • 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.

  • Vice Presidential 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 or Elizabeth Warren.

So do debates matter?

In 2019 Vincent Pons, an associate professor at Harvard Business School, and graduate student Caroline Le Pennec of the University of California, Berkeley, produced a working paper analyzing the influence of 56 TV debates on 31 elections in the U.S., the U.K. Across all voting systems and election types, Pons and Le Pennec found that debates neither helped undecided voters to make up their mind nor caused those who had already made a decision to switch candidates. “I was surprised,” Pons says. “If you look at the numbers of people watching TV debates and at all the media attention around debates, you would think debates matter.”

Most people who watch debates do not view them to be persuaded but to “see how their candidate is going to dominate, smear or embarrass the other candidate,” says Jay Van Bavel, an associate professor of psychology and neural science at New York University. Regardless of what actually transpires in a debate, evidence also indicates that many viewers filter what they see in a way that aligns with their goals and identity. In unpublished results from a new study, Van Bavel found that, depending on which political party they belong to, people shown clips from a 2016 debate between Hillary Clinton and Trump selectively paid attention to different parts and remembered what happened differently. “When partisans tune into a debate, they often walk away with an opinion that just confirms what they believed before the debate began,” Van Bavel says.