Do the US presidential debates matter?

Organisers get ready for the first presidential debate in Denver, Colorado 2 October 2012 The first debate of 2012 is taking place at the University of Denver, in the swing state of Colorado

US President Barack Obama, meet your Republican opponent Mitt Romney. Live. In the flesh.

It is quite a moment.

This ill-tempered US election campaign has largely been about both sides drawing a hideous caricature of their opponent producing endless adverts, stuffed with half-truths and quotations taken out of context.

This is the first chance America has had to look into the eyes of the two men who would be president and to hear what they say to each other, face to face.

The experts I have been talking to say that, yes, in a close election the debates can matter.

What matters most is not the closely drawn intellectual argument about rival policy platforms, but the body language and the pithy one-liner that sums up an opponent's faults.

The tone was set by the very first presidential TV debate: John Kennedy vs Richard Nixon in 1960. One commentator at the time said JFK looked like "a bronzed warrior" whereas Tricky Dicky appeared sick, unshaven and sweaty.

Ronald Reagan's put-down of Jimmy Carter in 1979, "There you go again", encapsulated the feelings of many that the incumbent was a bit wordy and long-winded, and allowed Reagan to appear sharp and unthreatening.

Archiving the presidential campaign

Above all, the candidates must avoid blundering, making some stray error of fact or tone that makes them appear ineligible for high office. Avoiding the pitfalls is priority number one.

I am told President Obama sees debates as a "jump-ball" - a moment when a team can grab control of a game from a difficult position.

So he would probably settle, to change sporting metaphors, for a no-score draw.

His conference speech was judged "workmanlike" (by me, among others) and he would probably settle for a similar verdict on this debate.

Mr Romney, on the other hand, is behind in most opinion polls - badly so in the vital swing states - and needs a win. But the debates serve another purpose.

One of my most interesting recent interviews was with a professor of political communication, Kathleen Jamieson, who made the point that while debates only occasionally change minds, they do leave voters much better informed.

She sees that as valuable in itself, an exploration of how candidates would govern - a kind of manifesto in a country that does not go in for manifestos, a promissory note for the next four years, during which one of the two will be in the White House.

I will be tweeting as the debate happens, technology willing, and blogging when it is over.

Mark Mardell Article written by Mark Mardell Mark Mardell Presenter, The World This Weekend

Potent and provocative symbol of the flag

Flags can convey powerful - and often very unpalatable - messages, says Mark Mardell,

Read full article

More on This Story

US Presidential Election 2012


This entry is now closed for comments

Jump to comments pagination
  • Comment number 31.

    All this user's posts have been removed.Why?

  • rate this

    Comment number 30.

    Sort of, maybe...
    It depends of course on what is said and the manner of speech, the non-flappability, the Presidentiality...Actually, I think this one won't matter much because Obama (better spokeman, better liked) should wipe the floor with Romney. In fact, Romney has everything to lose and little to gain.

  • rate this

    Comment number 29.

    'Names may be failed if they...Contain website'. Noticed how the BBC allows website links when they are anti Bush/republican/Tory...but try to get one negative link of the left/Labour Party/Democrat...

  • Comment number 28.

    All this user's posts have been removed.Why?

  • rate this

    Comment number 27.

    Will Anita be wearing the Obama hat this time? Or is that Katty or Mark? How many do you need? What about Obama wrist bands? Need some Champagne bottles so they can be strewn around broadcasting house when Barry wins?

  • rate this

    Comment number 26.

    Tomorrow we will be given a barrage of opinions by new casters as to who they think won; who slipped up, and who looked presidential. It will start early in the morning and go on for days after and will influence people who agree with the last person they listened to. Such is the power of the press.

    p.s. And I'm sick of it.

  • rate this

    Comment number 25.

    What is the point of these debates if not everyone running is represented?

    Will Gary Johnson be there?
    Will Jill Stein?
    Will Virgil Goode?
    Will Rocky Anderson?

    When will the media be fair to all parties and give them all time to speak?
    Or have they all been bought off?

  • Comment number 24.

    All this user's posts have been removed.Why?

  • rate this

    Comment number 23.

    Is POTUS chosen 'to lead'?

    Or we elect Prison Guard?

    There is a place for 'leadership'

    But only to the extent 'coherent'

    The best must rule the lesser

    But must not escape debate

    We depend on 'representation'

    But need freedom 'to represent'

    Needing at least to trust in goodwill

    We need 'rational' partnership basis

    Cannonball Express needs 'driver'

    But should run 'for EQUAL People'

  • Comment number 22.

    This comment was removed because the moderators found it broke the house rules. Explain.

  • Comment number 21.

    All this user's posts have been removed.Why?

  • rate this

    Comment number 20.

    I 'called it' at 269 all. Really!

    Who's POTUS if it's a tie?!

  • rate this

    Comment number 19.

    Might Barack take-off? Or Mitt steal a march?

    Need more than rival belief in 'steadier hand'

    Admissions due & relevant resolve:

    To fix tiller, up-date charts, let proper courses be set

    Representation at last, 'Govt of, by & for The EQUAL People"

    Sadly, 'no pressure': Reps 'not trying', backers happy to provide an Aunt Sally - People & President snared by Media Control

    'Loser' to govern still

  • rate this

    Comment number 18.

    "Romney has already insulted me in a general way -- most recently with his "47%" remarks. So I'll watch the debate to see if he can insult me in any more specific ways this time with some actual, fleshed-out policy positions".

    Ahh good-morning Curt,to sit through any thing, waiting to be insulted, one things for certain,your not going to be disappointed.

  • rate this

    Comment number 17.

    American election campaigning would be infinitely more interesting and worthwhile if candidates were only permitted to make commercials and statements that informed the electorate what their policies are and plans should they be elected will be.

    As it is, the millions spent by either side in a presidential election on campaigning does nothing but bring out the negative points of its opponent.

  • rate this

    Comment number 16.

    Obama has been making promises to so many about how he's going to give them this, that and the other. I'd like to hear how he intends to pay for it...or rather how my great-grandchildren will still be paying for it.

  • rate this

    Comment number 15.

    Unless someone makes a blunder probaly not.

    Many voters are superficial and can't look beyond party ID or ideology.

    How anyone can still support the failed Presidency and incomptence of Obama is proof of that.

  • rate this

    Comment number 14.

    Most of the campaign has been spent giving 10 second negative sound bytes blaming the other for something. In the debates, they'll have to tell what and how they will achieve their promises. Most "undecided" votes will be determined by these responses.

  • rate this

    Comment number 13.

    I´m sure that debates matter. Sad.
    Anything prepared for television presentation/ consumption cannot adequately present the concerns of a people or the complex approach to dealing with problems.
    Such debates are pure show.

  • rate this

    Comment number 12.

    Maybe Blaise Pascal was right. Despite all attempts to appear "rational", as if something's wrong with being "emotional", people are dictated more by the heart than by the head. Ask any republican-leaning professor of Political Science and s/he'll vouch for a Romney victory; and ask a democrat-leaning one and you'll get an Obama victory. Can't wait to hear the contrasting reactions to this debate!


Page 10 of 11



  • photo of patient zero, two year-old Emile OuamounoPatient zero

    Tracking first Ebola victim and and how virus spread

  • A young Chinese girl looks at an image of BarbieBarbie's battle

    Can the doll make it in China at the second attempt?

  • Prosperi in the 1994 MdSLost in the desert

    How I drank urine and bat blood to survive in the Sahara

  • Afghan interpetersBlacklisted

    The Afghan interpreters left by the US to the mercy of the Taliban

  • Flooded homesNo respite

    Many hit by last winter's floods are struggling to pay soaring insurance bills

BBC © 2014 The BBC is not responsible for the content of external sites. Read more.

This page is best viewed in an up-to-date web browser with style sheets (CSS) enabled. While you will be able to view the content of this page in your current browser, you will not be able to get the full visual experience. Please consider upgrading your browser software or enabling style sheets (CSS) if you are able to do so.