Wednesday, 26 September 2012

Will The Presidential Debates Affect The Election Outcome?

by Philippa Abernethy

John McCain and Barack Obama
2008 Presidential Debate
The presidential debates for this upcoming presidential election are looming. There are four debates taking place from October 3rd to October 22nd 2012, three of which involve the presidential candidates, President Barack Obama and former Governor Mitt Romney, with one involving their running mates, Vice President Joe Biden for the Democrats and Representative Paul Ryan for the Republicans. These Presidential debates have been, in recent years, viewed as increasingly important; during Ronald Reagan’s Presidential campaign, it is said, he only did eight hours of practice debating; Mitt Romney, on the other hand, has done nearer fifty hours. However, how much impact can these debates really have?

Mitt Romney and Rick Perry
Republican Primary Debate, 2012
It is often said that the election debates have very little effect on the outcome of the presidential election. Firstly, it is not always the case that the winner of the debate wins the election. In fact, in the last seven debates only four of the declared winners have gone on to win. John Kerry is the most obvious example of this when he lost the leadership battle in 2004, despite having won the debates. However, more than this, it is argued that the American electorate does not just base who it votes for on image, they vote based on policy, on the economy and the success of the incumbent, as well as the success of the TV ads the nominees put out. President Bush Sr, for example, in 1992 lost the presidential election to Bill Clinton after high unemployment and economic difficulty plagued the country. Therefore, it may be sensible for Romney and Obama not to focus too heavily on the debates, but instead to focus more time and money on advertising.
However, it seems that in some cases debates do have an enormous impact on a campaign. Rick Perry was considered to be one of the front runners in the Republican primaries for presidential nominee. He, like Romney, seemed a cut above other candidates, based on body language, presentation and confidence; where Perry seemed calm, collected and sharp, other candidates such as Newt Gingrich and Ron Paul seemed flustered. However Perry’s presidential campaign was effectively crippled by one poor debate in which he forgot which governmental departments he planned to shut down, leading people to believe he was completely incompetent. This shows the potentially enormous impact of the debates. Clearly a large factor in the success of a candidate is image: how they deal with pressure and whether they would be a competent person not just to act as a political force in America, but also to portray a good public face of America to other countries. Perhaps this is the same argument for not letting Boris Johnson into Downing Street!

Similarly, in the 1976 presidential election between Gerald Ford, the incumbent, and Jimmy Carter, it is often suggested that Ford’s downfall was in his presidential debate, when he tried to argue that Russia did not have a sphere of influence in Eastern Europe – something particularly worrying for the head of state to say when the Cold War was still on-going. Given that the relatively unknown Jimmy Carter was able to win a narrow victory, it would seem that this ‘gaffe’ by Ford had an effect on the result of the election.

Hence, it seems that if Romney or Obama make any ‘gaffes’ during these debates it could directly affect their poll ratings. This is particularly key for both candidates as Obama needs to reassert himself as leader to an increasingly disillusioned electorate during this recession, and Romney needs to show that he is able to represent the USA well, especially after his disastrous effect on international relations during his trip to Britain a few months ago.

Having said this, however, all the examples of election results being affected by the presidential debates have not been as a result of one candidate being better than the other, but of one of the candidates, in effect, ‘messing up’. Therefore nowadays, when meticulous planning goes into the debates, and careful sound bites and responses are littered throughout the speeches, it is unlikely that any such ‘mess-ups’ will occur. Realistically this means that Romney and Obama can cause their campaign to falter as a result of their performance; they cannot, however, enhance it.

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