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Just how crucial are the US presidential TV debates?

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Just how crucial are the US presidential TV debates?


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The televised debates, which get under way on Monday night, are just the latest episodes in the seemingly never-ending soap opera that is the US Presidential Election campaign.

The impact of the three debates on the election result is, in itself, debatable but they do have the potential to swing the outcome one way or another, especially in a tight race such as this.

Almost three quarters (74%) of the American population say they are likely to watch the televised debates, according to ABC research. Just under one in four voters (23%) say the debates could have a “major impact” on whether they choose Hillary Clinton or Donald Trump on November 8.

Another poll by the Wall Street Journal and NBC News suggests that the debates will be important factors in the choice of over one third of voters (34%).

Yet there is some historical data that casts doubt on whether presidential debates have any real influence come voting day. Looking at the last six elections NBC claims that whoever leads in the polls before Debate 1 usually goes on to win.

There have been occasions further back in the past when it is easier to argue that the debates have been decisive. Past debates also provide candidates with crucial examples of what and what not to do when the cameras roll. For while a debate isn’t necessarily a ‘make-or-break’ moment, one big mistake can – if correctly exploited – kill a campaign.

1960: Kennedy vs Nixon

The very first televised presidential face-off, between John F. Kennedy and Richard Nixon in 1960, is a good example of a possibly election-changing debate. Nixon led in opinion polls until August but Kennedy won the election with 49.72% of the national vote to Nixon’s 49.55% and is widely seen as having “won” the debates. In the first, Nixon, who had been suffering flu, refused make-up and appeared ill-shaven on the black-and-white screens. He sweated visibly in front of an estimated television audience of 70 million and, when speaking, frequently addressed his interrogators rather than the camera. By avoiding eye-contact with the TV viewer he did nothing to undermine his nickname of “Tricky Dicky”.

A much more telegenic, youthful and tanned Kennedy looked straight at the camera – and looked the voters in the eye – as he spoke. Aesthetically, it was a no-contest.

Nixon wrote in his memoirs years later that “I should have remembered that ‘a picture is worth a thousand words’”. He also refused televised debates in his 1968 and 1972 campaigns.

1976: Jimmy Carter vs Gerald Ford

How President Ford must have regretted saying, during the 1976 debate: “There is no Soviet domination of Eastern Europe, and there never will be under a Ford administration.”

He had wanted simply to point out that countries like Romania and Yugoslavia were sovereign states and not Soviet republics. It was probably not something viewers found too shocking on the night, but his rival managed to spin the phrase and frame the narrative over the following weeks in such a way that when it came to Cold War geo-politics, Ford appeared naive.

Ford, although he still trailed in the polls before the debate, had been making up ground on Carter but the “gaffe”, whether real or perceived, halted his momentum and Carter won the election with 50.1% of the popular vote.

1980: Jimmy Carter vs Ronald Reagan

Just as it’s not always the biggest, strongest fighter that wins a boxing match, being the most articulate and intellectual of candidates is no guarantee of victory in a debate.

In 1980 Jimmy Carter came armed with a long, thoroughly researched monologue brimming with facts and statistics on how Ronald Reagan posed a danger to Americans because of his opposition to Medicare.

Reagan, an actor by trade who was a natural in front of camera, shrugged off Carter’s grim and solemn attack with a laugh and a dismissive “There you go again.” Innocuous on paper but deadly when perfectly delivered, it is one of the lines Americans remember best from the 56-year history of televised debates.

In all probability Reagan would have won the election anyway – he carried 44 out of 50 states – but the debate is a good demonstration of Reagan’s ability to appear affable and good-humoured. He executed the trick again four years later.

1984: Ronald Reagan vs Walter Mondale

Reagan had a disastrous time of things in the first debate in the 1984 race, seeming lost and forgetting mid-sentence what he was talking about. It gave his opponent Walter Mondale an opportunity to attack Reagan’s physical aptitude for the job; his age became an issue. Reagan completely obliterated that issue in the second debate when he said: “I will not make age an issue in this campaign. I will not exploit, for political purposes, my opponent’s youth and inexperience.” Even Mondale laughed.

The result a month later was a wipe-out in Reagan’s favour.

There have been ‘memorable moments’ in most of the series of debates since Reagan. None have been killer blows that have won and lost elections outright, but candidates’ performances do help shape the rest of the campaign. They can allow one candidate to frame the narrative in their favour.

1992: George Bush Snr. vs Bill Clinton

Bill Clinton emerged the better from his debates with incumbent President George Bush Snr. in 1992. Bush didn’t help himself by checking his watch as a member of the public asked her question. He appeared bored, in fact years later he admitted what was going through his mind as he checked the time: “Only 10 more minutes of this crap.” Clinton was subsequently able to portray his rival as aloof and uncaring, while he himself was seen as more in touch with voters.

2000: Al Gore vs George W. Bush

It was a similar story in 2000: Al Gore may have been more eloquent and erudite than George W. Bush but voters don’t appreciate a smart-ass. Gore could be heard sighing loudly as Bush spoke and in the following days it was that – and not the actual content of the debate – which became the story.

Gore had lost the personality battle. As one political commentator, Molly Ivins, put it: “George W. Bush sounds like English is his second language, and Al Gore sounds like he thinks it’s yours.”

2012: Barack Obama vs Mitt Romney

Barack Obama, like Reagan in 1984, performed poorly in the first televised debate of the 2012 campaign but went on to recover. One element in any candidate’s election strategy is to appear presidential, statesmanlike, above ridicule. When Mitt Romney let slip the phrase “binders full of women” in response to a debate question about the gender pay gap, ‘the internet’ took immense pleasure in poking fun at Romney’s unfortunate turn of phrase. It wasn’t the reason why he lost, but it was a contributing factor, another straw on the camel’s back.

2016: Hillary Clinton vs Donald Trump

The viewing electorate has seen plenty of both 2016 candidates over the decades and has most likely already formed an opinion of them.

Each has their own style; Clinton, the establishment candidate, would be more at home on matters of policy while Trump, her anti-establishment rival, could be said to favour style over substance.

Trump has made enough controversial declarations so far in the campaign to suggest he isn’t ready to stop now. He could be one outrageous comment away from blowing his chances, or alternatively he could get under Clinton’s skin effectively enough as to make her lose her composure or provoke a reaction that could later be ridiculed and memed to death on Twitter.

Clinton could, by exposing Trump’s lack of diplomacy and tact, manage to make him unelectable in the eyes of those independents who don’t already see him as such. On the other hand she is one bout of coughing away from making her health the Number 1 issue in the election.

The debates may teach us nothing and might fail to change voters’ minds in the swing states that matter. What we can expect is some gripping theatre and hopefully a few good ‘memorable moments.’

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