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, North America editor Article written by Mark Mardell Mark Mardell North America editor

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  • rate this
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    Comment number 211.

    #191 did the position exist before she started?

  • rate this
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    Comment number 210.

    ref #190 because it was an invented job. As soon as she left they eliminated the position

  • rate this
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    Comment number 209.

    The media's interpretation of the debates has more influence. Mark Mardell's tweets favored Romney as the winner. That may be the case in the eyes of a voter who knows very little about the issues, or the history of both candidates campaigns. However a neutral journalist should report based on a thorough knowledge of the issues. Most of what Romney said contradicted his previous positions.

  • rate this
    -1

    Comment number 208.

    Obama is a man whose (1) policies failed, hence, no pugnacious defense from him (2) potential energy is lost, he had spend it all kinetically in the 1st Term and (3) in‘shock and awe’ at Romney's aggressiveness.
    O’s is the lame duck. Romney is the hunter. If some voters cannot detect the ‘insurgency’ of Romney, then, they must belong to the 47%.

  • rate this
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    Comment number 207.

    The debates do not really matter as what is discussed does not matter. Candidates agree to discuss nothing of substance and agree not to allow anyone else participate in the debate. But that does not mean no theater will be provided because this is entertainment. Anyone savvy to this "electoral process" understands this. It is yet another illusion. The illusion of democracy in the USA.

  • Comment number 206.

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

  • rate this
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    Comment number 205.

    Closing statements were both disappointing. In the debate nobody really challenged each other, its was a bit academic. They almost echoed each other.

  • rate this
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    Comment number 204.

    These debates are not going to produce a magic wand that will all of a sudden change peoples deplorable financial plights overnight. Its all super sized, fine tuned, overtly exagerrated abstract theories formulated by overpaid individuals, that bears no relevance to reality. I dont care what whoever cuts, subtract or divide, just add jobs to the equation so that people can live once again.

  • Comment number 203.

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

  • rate this
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    Comment number 202.

    these guys are rambling a bit too much in my opinion. Rambling with no substance. Broad ideas, generalities. show the plan guys

  • Comment number 201.

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

  • rate this
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    Comment number 200.

    No they dont as both guys will just slag each other off till the cows come home IMO a total waste of TV time and as a Brit living in CA I am so tired with this election.
    So many people have already voted why do they leave these debates so late have them before early voting starts otherwise they are a worthless waste of time.

  • rate this
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    Comment number 199.

    A fitting stage managed climax to the media panto performance that preceded it.

    What a waste of time and money.

  • rate this
    +3

    Comment number 198.

    No, the debates don't matter much.

    Everyone knows ( or should know by this time) that a Republocrat will win the election next month, and that very little fundamental change will occur as a result of the election.

    If I bother to vote at all, it will be against Romney, as opposed to being for Obama.

  • rate this
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    Comment number 197.

    The US has a big problem. The Republicans block everything Obama does to end the recession so they can have the fun of blaming him for not ending it. Romney says his big new idea is to do what Bush did that created the recession in the first place. This is madness. America needs some truly NEW ideas and to kick out of office ANYONE who tries to bring down the economy or block progress.

  • Comment number 196.

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

  • rate this
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    Comment number 195.

    No, they don't particularly matter much. Look up how the debates have changed since the organizers went from being the League of Women Voters before 1988 to the jointly Democratic and Republican administered Commision on Presidential Debates. While it is not entirely scripted, the entire affair is leaning towards being a farcical side-show.

  • rate this
    -2

    Comment number 194.

    191. President Kush

    No, those "scum" never got to confront him directly. In fact, few have had a chance to confront him. He hasn't give a full press conference for months. After his Benghazi statement, he didn't take questions. His staff has to approve any quotes before they get published.

    This president has trained the media to sit and fetch, and it has been a good student.

  • rate this
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    Comment number 193.

    #192 gosh so strange things happen in Chicago so everyone who builds a career there is to be viewed with suspicion? That is no less unfair a claim as saying that Romney only got into his position in Bain because of his well connected family.

  • rate this
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    Comment number 192.

    190. moderate_ob

    Strange things happen in Chicago.

    Jesse Jackson, Jr., is running for Congress. He is on the ballot but hasn't been seen for months (he has been diagnosed with bipolar disorder), and his wife said there is a chance he won't be seen until after the election.

    This is Obama's hometown. Explains why Obama's voting "present" wasn't even questioned. At least he was present.

 

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