Presidential Debates: Not All They’re Cracked Up to Be

1 Apr 2015

The end of March sees the deadline for applications to host a 2016 presidential debate. Before we know it, it will be debate time once more. American debates are always a source of interest to those outside of the States, and in Britain in particular, they receive a considerable amount of attention. Reflecting the broader British interest in American politics, you can watch presidential debates live—if you can stay up long enough—and read post-debate analysis in most newspapers. When the first election debate in the UK was staged in 2010, references were constantly made to the American example. Watching the Republican and Democratic nominees debate every four years helped shape the sense that it was really time Britain did something similar.


It’s easy to see why so many outside of the US are interested in the presidential debates. They do, after all, consist of candidates vying to hold what is purportedly the most powerful job in the world. For British audiences in particular, the debates form part of a fascination with American politics that is shared by the media and a public brought up on The West Wing and House of Cards.   


More than all of this, though, debates are watched for the drama. There is something inherently fascinating about watching two people (although there have occasionally been debates featuring three candidates) stand up, on their own, and answer questions. It’s a very public job interview. The sense is of politics in action, right in front of millions of viewers. Before presidential debates, a sense of impending drama prevails: will somebody say something ludicrous? Forget something? Deliver a particularly good ‘zinger’? News channels develop jazzy graphics and invite pundits to speculate endlessly about how candidates will fare given their past records, the conditions, and to ponder about how they will seek to put their opponent on the back foot. People who have trained and prepared with their entourages now have to stand without their support staff, in front of millions, and prove their worth. In all of this, presidential debates are like a tennis match, albeit one (with apologies to tennis fans) with slightly higher stakes.


And yet.


As the dust settles on the first sort-of debate of the British election, it is worth remembering that there are limits to this kind of primetime politics. For one thing, presidential debates often aren’t as interesting as you’d hope. Certainly, in their relatively short history (the first broadcast debate was 1960; they didn’t start up again until 1976) there have been some dramatic moments. In 1976, Gerald Ford stated, to the confusion of just about everyone, that “there is no Soviet domination of Eastern Europe”. During a debate in the last election, Mitt Romney made a truly memorable reference to “binders full of women.” Al Gore sighed his way through a 2000 debate. And in 1984 Reagan delivered a joke about his age that was so well-crafted even Aaron Sorkin would have struggled to do better: “I will not make age an issue of this campaign. I am not going to exploit, for political purposes, my opponent’s youth and inexperience’, he said. Even vice-presidential debates have provided a few dramatic flourishes: when Dan Quayle began comparing himself to JFK in 1988, Lloyd Bensten’s riposte that ‘Senator, you’re no Jack Kennedy’ brought him down several pegs. Yet all of these are just moments of wit or gaffe: they are memorable, but are brief flashes of drama.


In short, few presidential debates have offered game-changing moments, something increasingly recognized by those who study them. Historian John Steele Gordon wrote in 2012 that “presidential debates have not been decisive since then [Reagan-Mondale] and for the most part have not even been memorable.” Similarly, political scientist John Sides argues that “…presidential debates, while part of how the game is played, are rarely what decide the game itself.” Citing several studies, Sides notes that presidential debates have tended to have little impact on polls, and generally only serve to reinforce the direction in which polls are already moving. For those Americans who watch the debates, it doesn’t seem to be the case that they are the only thing that determines their vote on election day.


There are multiple reasons for this, but perhaps the most important is the way that campaigns have increasingly sought to shape debates. Since 1987, presidential debates have been organized by the nonpartisan Commission on Presidential Debates, but campaigns can still wrangle over details large and small. Indeed, the group which originally organized debates—the League of Women Voters—stopped doing so in the late 1980s precisely because of the increasing demands of campaigns. What will the format be—a straight-up debate or one with questions from the public? How long will candidates get to speak and rebut? How tall will the podiums be? Campaigns fill the ‘spin room’ with supporters to insist to the media immediately after the debate that their candidate won, or exceeded the already-low expectations that they’d deliberately set for them before the debate. Candidates spend specific days preparing for the debates, rehearsing answers and jokes. They have key points that they stick to and facts memorized. The net result is that the whole thing feels rehearsed, and is not the free-flowing test of candidates’ mettle that we may hope for.


In the age of Twitter and Buzzfeed, of course, it is harder for campaigns to manage expectations and set their own narratives when people can make, and share, snap judgments. Gaffes become even more memorable—think how quickly the ‘binders full of women’ memes appeared everywhere—and Vines of zingers can be shared endlessly. But it’s not clear that will be enough to solve the fundamental issue that debates are, in an ironic way, victims of their own success: taken so seriously that they have become carefully managed presentations, rather than real debate. But I’ll still watch them anyway.  

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