TV debates put a face to the vote

Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney (L) shakes hands with President Barack Obama at the...

Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney (L) shakes hands with President Barack Obama at the start of the first 2012 U.S. presidential debate in Denver Oct. 3, 2012. REUTERS/Jason Reed

John Robson, Parliamentary Bureau

, Last Updated: 12:19 PM ET

It's now impossible to imagine an American presidential election without televised debates. But it wasn't always this way. And the reason they've caught on is, for all their flaws, they help voters make up their minds about candidates.

That's why about one in five Americans watch, depending how important the election seems. Just 46 million tuned in to Bush-Gore in 2000 while 80 million - more than one in every three Americans - watched Ronald Reagan clobber Jimmy Carter in 1980. The only higher proportion was in 1960, when 66 of 179 million Americans watched Richard Nixon clobber himself in front of John Kennedy.

The Nixon-Kennedy debates are justly famous, partly for their novelty. When Harry S. Truman beat Thomas E. Dewey in 1948 (and Nixon was a freshman congressman) there were maybe 345,000 TVs in the whole U.S. By 1956, when the Democrats held the first televised primary debate, there were 100 times as many. And by 1960, when Nixon faced off against the handsome, telegenic Kennedy, 87% of American homes had TVs. But character, not novelty, was key.

In their first debate, Nixon was pale, underweight, twitchy and sweaty; at one lethal moment, facing a tough question, he actually fished out a handkerchief and mopped his face. He wore a light suit against a light background and rumours persist that the Kennedy campaign somehow turned up the studio thermostat to aggravate Nixon's famous tendency to perspire.

Nixon improved his presentation dramatically for the three subsequent 1960 debates. But it was too late, because people tuned in to see what sort of men the candidates were and found Nixon as shifty and unreliable as Watergate would later prove him to be. (Kennedy, of course, was not as impressive as he seemed; TV debates show flaws more clearly than virtues.)

Despite the impact of 1960, or perhaps because Nixon's disaster frightened candidates, there wasn't another debate until 1976. Challenged to debate George McGovern in 1972 Nixon just sneered - and got away with it, as FDR had when challenged to a radio debate by Wendell Willkie in 1940. (Curiously, no presidential radio debate was ever held, though the Republicans had a 1948 primary radio debate, while the Democrats televised primary debates in 1968 and 1972.)

But after Watergate, burned by trusting Nixon, voters insisted on seeing candidates face to face ... and their running mates.

The results can be dramatic. Gerald Ford's inexplicable 1976 "There is no Soviet domination of Eastern Europe" helped reinforce his image as a doofus and may have cost him a fairly close election. And in 1980 Ronald Reagan brushed aside a mean-spirited Carter with a genial "There you go again", while his masterful "Are you better off than you were four years ago?" convinced many Americans that, far from being a faded, dim-witted B actor, Reagan felt exactly the same way they did about their nation's course.

Other debates were less dramatic. But even Al Gore's juvenile eye-rolling and exaggerated sighs in 2000 helped cost him a race so close it came down to contested Florida ballots. And while no presidential debate has approached 1858's famous Lincoln-Douglas debates, over an Illinois Senate seat, for eloquence, moral seriousness or historical impact (without TV, Twitter or even microphones), all are revealing.

Of course the candidates, like the staging and camera work, have become more sophisticated over the years. But their relentless efforts to manipulate the "messaging" have not rendered the debates artificial or pointless.

To this day, it is almost as dangerous to be overly scripted as to wander disastrously off script. Other than Sun Media affiliate TVA's one-on-one exchanges in the last Quebec election, most Canadian debates are far less interesting, not because the stage is too crowded (U.S. primary debates are worse) but because we tolerate candidates hammering on prepared talking points while Americans insist they think aloud.

Against this standard the first Obama-Romney outing was a middling affair. Neither candidate knocked out the other ... or himself. But Romney seemed presidential while Obama was vague, flat and tense, saying "uh" over and over and blinking constantly. In an election closer than conventional polling suggests, it showed voters neither man was who or what the Democratic campaign claimed.

That's useful information for voters. Which is good.

 


Videos

Photos