Do Presidential Debates Still Inspire Voters?

By  //  October 21, 2020

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Debates between the President and the opposition candidate in the lead up to an election have been a staple of American politics for many years.

The introduction of television into homes raised the stakes even higher, with viewers hanging on every word.

The most recent installment, contested by President Donald Trump and Democratic candidate Joe Biden, proved to be equally compelling viewing. But was it entertaining for the right reasons, and did it provoke the desired response from those tuning in?

In this article, we will discuss the art of the modern debate and consider whether they still justify their significant billing in the weeks and months building up to an election. Do people make their minds up based on what they see? Or have they become a pointless exercise?

The gloves are off

This year’s Presidential was hotly anticipated, particularly as the race is so close. The latest US election odds from Betfair place Biden as the 1.51 favorite, although Trump isn’t far behind at 2.92. There were hopes that the event would help shape voting intentions, but the reality was a little more disappointing.

We perhaps shouldn’t have been surprised. Trump’s clash with Hillary Clinton in 2016 saw the current President accuse the Democratic hopeful of criminality, suggesting she was “crooked” and even demanding that she be locked up. This brash brand of debating alienated many from the political process, although others bought into The Donald’s no-holds-barred approach.

Fast forward four years and the most recent episode saw Trump go after Biden’s family, questioning the role of Joe’s son, Hunter, in dealings with Russian officials. Joe repeatedly implored the President to “shut up” and the pair frequently interrupted and talked over one another.

The response to the debate was hugely negative, with many observers remarking that neither candidate succeeded in rallying any new support. In truth, such is the polarised nature of modern American politics that it’s also relatively unlikely that many of those tuning in heard enough to sway them in a different direction.

The good old days

However, there once was a time when Presidential debates were more civil affairs, which weren’t punctuated by interruptions and insults every couple of minutes. Candidates exchanged views and even traded quips, but it was extremely rare to see or hear anything other than the highest levels of decorum being maintained.

One classic exchange demonstrating those values came in 1984 when Ronald Reagan drew laughter from the audience – and his opponent – after promising he would not “make age an issue”, adding that he would not exploit Democratic candidate Walter Mondale’s “youth and inexperience”. Mondale was 17 years Reagan’s junior.

And, of course, in those days, the information media was far less advanced, with the age of the internet and social media still decades away. This meant debates carry much more weight in the lead up to elections, to the extent that they often helped floating voters make their minds up.

With television and print media the only sources of news, debates between candidates provided an opportunity for citizens to get to know the hopefuls a little better – what they stand for, what makes them tick and what their hopes are for the next four years.

Unfortunately, as we can see from the evidence before us, it’s a different story these days. America’s tribalism, perpetuated by the conduct of its leading politicians, has contributed to the once-beloved Presidential debate losing most of its value and impact.

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