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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US Presidential Election 2012


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  • Comment number 151.

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

  • rate this

    Comment number 150.

    117 ‘Obama will need zingers since he is hopeless without his teleprompter.’

    That one certainly hasn’t gotten old....

    How then did he manage to win debates against the hugely experienced McCain without a teleprompter?

    (Gotta love those Reps and their devotion to The Nine Commandments...)

  • rate this

    Comment number 149.

    145 d_m
    “Free screenings are one thing...”

    Remember the comment is based on poor women without insurance. The link below is for eligible women in Washington State to receive screenings and treatment via state and federal programs.

  • Comment number 148.

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

  • rate this

    Comment number 147.

    #144 in fairness I think all media in the democratic world leans 'left' of US 'right leaning' media on economic issues.Particularly the libertarian almost economic Darwinist flavor of the US right is unique among popular 'right' leaning political movements in OECD developed countries. Many 'right' wing movements elsewhere are more pre-occupied with nationalism and have a more protectionist streak.

  • rate this

    Comment number 146.

    144 mscracker : is it a left angle lean or a different base line?
    GOP seem to be accusing lefties of being left of a base line that has been moved!
    The 2010 election was when the base line changed (Extreme Tea Party idealists got in)
    I'm looking forward to the voters changing the base line back to one that reflects the ideals the country was based on instead of ones we fought against in past wars

  • rate this

    Comment number 145.

    140 rodidog

    Free screenings are one thing, but a lump in your breast will cost upwards of 40 to 50k to have removed. That's in the Seattle area. Without insurance?

  • rate this

    Comment number 144.

    '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!"
    Good point.Here in the States, both NPR & PBS get our tax $$ & they lean at a left angle.

  • Comment number 143.

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

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    Comment number 142.

    If the consequences of the outcome were not so dire, then we could all sit back and enjoy the farce - which is what the US elections have become: A high-budget theatrical farce!

  • rate this

    Comment number 141.

    Obama is ready, Romney has to make it clear this time, not flip flopping, not telling lies and not having an answer on many issues. he will be exposed by Obama firing attack on many issues. Presidant's job is not just economy. This is not a small country from Africa, this is America. The world is watching. Romney has to prove that the world will welcome him.. So far he was not.

  • rate this

    Comment number 140.

    135 DenverGuest
    “What about the woman with no insurance who finds a lump in her breast?”

    There are free screenings for women who are eligible via government and private organizations. The ER is not the only resource for those without insurance.

  • rate this

    Comment number 139.

    ref #122

    Note to blog, criticizing Desmond Tutu even though it is richlly deserved is not allowed.

  • rate this

    Comment number 138.

    58 ‘..Not only was Mitt ..many Republicans second or third choice..’

    As someone said on a BBC comedy show, Mittens is essentially The Guy Who Lost To The Guy Who Lost To Dubya

    (Ie McCain beat him in 08. Dubya beat McCain in 2000)

    There's many a true word spoken in jest...

  • rate this

    Comment number 137.

    “Mr Romney, on the other hand, is behind in most opinion polls - badly so in the vital swing states - and needs a win.”

    Most polls were over sampling democrats based on the 2008 election. They’re tightening now, which suggests over sampling occurred or Romney is gaining ground. I disagree that Romney needs a win. For Romney, a tie is good enough. Not so much for Obama.

  • rate this

    Comment number 136.

    So far the same question has been asked before the Republican primaries, before both conventions, and now before each of the 4 debates. The question is asked each time a new Romney flub or an old Obama video is released. So far, Romney has remained behind, dropping from a 40% to about a 15% chance over the last 4 months. The debates can't hurt him but they can't save him either.

  • rate this

    Comment number 135.

    What about the woman with no insurance who finds a lump in her breast? Emergency rooms only give emergency care, so she will have to wait until she had end-stage cancer and is basically the walking dead before they will help her.
    Your argument is moot.

  • rate this

    Comment number 134.

    Is there a game on? Won't watch anyway. Wish I was sitting on the BlackSea with my feet up and a good D. bier.

  • rate this

    Comment number 133.

    It just goes to show like our own Government a "Punch and Judy show"
    Will will do this for our People we will do that bla bla bla
    Until they are in then everything gets swept under the carpet.
    But hay at least you were given talent at your own expense, sooner or later that fiscal cliff is going to go BANG! the Western world will come to a halt

  • rate this

    Comment number 132.

    128.Looney Limey

    Who denying anyone medical care in America? Besides Medicare is designed actuarially that enough people who pay in will die before receiving any benefits to pay for the benefits of Medicare recipients. If the poorest American is found dying on any street, they will be taken by trained EMTs to an trauma center staffed with highly trained MDs and nurses.

    You argument is moot.


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