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

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  • rate this

    Comment number 111.

    #105 the fact that the Romney campaign is looking for zingers sums up just about how dumbed down they think the audience is.No substance needed just one liners like Jay Leno.

  • rate this

    Comment number 110.

    Debates: In an info-lite campaign, it will be a relief to hear something of substance (if we do) and reassuring to know that even the candidate I don't favor might be a sensible man (if he is). W/o the threat of the debates as nights of reckoning, one suspects that both campaigns would abandon truth altogether. It's harder to get away with lies in the open than in a 30-second attack ad.

  • Comment number 109.

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

  • rate this

    Comment number 108.

    106.Looney Limey

    Just an illustration of how out of touch you are, there is no advertising money due to the debates. Every station would rather show an NFL game than the debates. The ratings for an average NFL game are much higher.

  • rate this

    Comment number 107.

    101: Bengalman
    "As an American you do not have a God given right to make your neighbor pay for your healthcare."

    As an American, do you then have a God-given right to let your neighbour (who maybe can't afford their own corporate healthcare) go without meds and access to adequate health services?

    That doesn't sound very Christian to me!

  • rate this

    Comment number 106.

    The Debates are important to all news because of the number of people expected to watch & the exposure they can guarantee to advertisers
    That means money!
    Like the Super Bowl, higher prices for advertising

    If one or the other falls flat on his face that will means several up ticks for future debates ($'s)
    The biggest issue U$A have or will ever face is coming up after this election!

  • rate this

    Comment number 105.

    To answer Mr Mardell's question "Do the Debates Matter"

    Short answer: No.

    Long answer Nooooooo. It's more of a choreographed dance than a real debate. It won't change any minds and it won't make up that many either. Now if the candidates were off the leash and these rules were rescinded, that would be a better glimpse of their true character when they were set loose without handlers or aides.

  • rate this

    Comment number 104.

    The operative word from the Republican side for the 'debates' is "Zinger". A one word or catch phrase that will make Obama look silly and diminshed without a retort. Word is that Romney has been practicing possible Zingers to be deployed like daggers against Obama. Not much substance only "gotch ya" theatrics for the dull minded TV audience that would rather be watching Dancing with the Stars.

  • rate this

    Comment number 103.

    20:rjaggar:A tie sends the contest to the House of Representatives, and since they're mostly Republican, it would seem most likely Romney would win there.

    25:Rosetta:In 1976 the Tomorrow Show spent an hour interview with each of the minor party presidential candidates because Tom Snyder had interviewed one and had to give equal time to the others. It's the only time I ever heard any of them on tv

  • Comment number 102.

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

  • rate this

    Comment number 101.

    95.Looney Limey

    I would wager that I have a better understanding of socialism and the "Affordable" Care Act than you. As an American you do not have a God given right to make your neighbor pay for your healthcare. The US Consritution does not give the Federal government the power to administer healthcare of healthcare insurance.

  • rate this

    Comment number 100.

    Debates are important to Fox News, who's Extremist's accusations of the Press being biased towards Obama is unfounded bunk
    All reports of the latest polls on Neutral stations gives Pres Obama a lead of two or three points
    Biased stations for Dems give him a five to six point lead
    Those who lean GOP accuse all others of being biased!
    Of course importance to the news media for rating would be.......

  • rate this

    Comment number 99.

    'All media's biased in some way, including the BBC.'

    Yes, true. But we are not forced to pay for non BBC media, and they are not bound to be impartial as a matter of charter under which they receive 3.2 billion ukp in funding. So there!

  • rate this

    Comment number 98.

    All media's biased in some way, including the BBC.
    FOX News & MSNBC are flagrant, the rest of media outlets get their views across in less obvious ways. Thankfully, we can still hear/read varying opinions in the US. At least for now.

  • rate this

    Comment number 97.

    BBC was biased against Thatcher, admits Mark Thompson.
    'The BBC was "massively" biased against Margaret Thatcher and journalists allowed their left-wing politics to set the corporation's agenda, director-general Mark Thompson has admitted.'

    So how can we ever believe anything the BBC says?

  • rate this

    Comment number 96.

    Debates only solidify voters' support for their candidates. Debates seldom sway a few voters who may be on the fence. Debates generally measure candidates command of issues and how quick they are on their feet. But it is largely a likability and style contest. A candidate who appear nervous, mean spirit and robotic will likely lose the debate even when they have command of the issues.

  • rate this

    Comment number 95.

    73 Bengalman : Oh, do me a favor! True socialization of 1/6th of the economy would be to cover all American citizens with complete Health Care Coverage paid for by Taxes
    You are seriously being mislead or do not have any idea what a socialist country is
    Bush started the wars and Raising Taxes is a GOP crown they are trying to put on Obama's head
    Watch a Public Station News show for real life news

  • rate this

    Comment number 94.

    62.Curt Carpenter
    Honk if @59 makes you cringe."
    That's rather mean spirited.
    I already know whom I'm voting for (Romney) & hope to be outside picking pecans instead of watching the debate.The only candidate that was worth watching debate was Ron Paul & he's not featured this evening.

  • rate this

    Comment number 93.

    Do the debates matter? In theory, at least, they should. Whether they will or not? We'll see . . .

  • rate this

    Comment number 92.

    Can you post a picture of Anita Anand wearing the Obama hat? And one of her wearing a McCain hat? All in the interests of impartiality and unbiased reporting. Of course.


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