Do debates really matter?

Andrea Römmele explains why Clinton vs. Trump just may be a game-changer.

On October 9, Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump will go at it again in their second televised debate. The question we find ourselves asking as we watch these heated spectacles in the strangest of all campaigns is: how much do they matter? What impact do they have? Can they be game changers?

The first-ever televised debate was legendary. In the 1960 US presidential race, John F. Kennedy faced off against Richard Nixon. A young, good-looking Harvard graduate, full of hope and ideals, debating the experienced politician and incumbent vice president. I often show this debate to my students: how cultivated, how fact-oriented, how polite – no attacking, no interrupting.

During that debate, an interesting experiment took place: a group of voters watched the debate on television; an overwhelming majority of that group saw John F. Kennedy as the clear winner. Another group listened to the debate on the radio and for them, Richard Nixon was the victor. It seemed the medium of television had the capacity to transform the way people saw things.

What kind of event is a televised debate, actually? First, it brings together the major candidates and their political programmes for 1-2 hours. It pits them directly against each other, live, in front of millions of viewers. Voters get an up-close, condensed version of what the candidates and their parties actually stand for. In addition, they can judge their “nonpolitical“ attributes: how do they handle attacks? How do they handle unexpected questions? Do they come across as having managerial skills? The voters get all this in a direct comparison. So it is a highly informative format. And it can have entertaining aspects.

But there is one thing even more influential than the debate – it’s what comes afterwards: the debate about the debate, the judgment of political journalists and public intellectuals. Their “verdict” can determine the outcome and offer some analysis and objectivity to this subjective format. Research shows that debates do have an impact, but the impact in general is limited: the result reassures your base, and it reassures those who are already leaning towards one candidate. And this effect has a pretty short shelf life. So what would you advise a candidate who is not the best debater? Move the debate as far away from election day as possible. Or: if you are a terrific debater, make sure you spar with your opponent as close to election day as possible.

With a month to go, the next debate on Oct 9 will probably be too far away from the election for either of these rules to apply. But it will be interesting to see if Donald Trump has done his homework for this match and the next, which is only two weeks before the election. Debates can make a difference if a candidate is not well-prepared, if he or she is nervous or inexperienced. Most of the time, candidates takes their performances seriously, get advice, and practice – and it’s often hard to tell who “won” – a job usually left up to media and political analysts to debate…after the debate. There have been a few exceptions: Obama in the first 2012 debate seemed ill-prepared and tired, while his opponent Mitt Romney came off as “presidential”. Obama took his “loss” in the first debate very seriously and prepared extremely well for the second and third debates. So let’s see what Donald has up his sleeve …

One wild card in the 2016 election is the perception of female candidates in debates. Women have – unfortunately – not appeared in many debates. Angela Merkel debated Gerhard Schröder in the 2005 German election campaign – and it seemed to viewers that Schröder was a bit insecure about how to handle a female opponent. Ségolène Royal, former French socialist candidate running against Nikolas Sarkozy in 2007 debated aggressively, sharply attacking her male opponent only four days prior to the election. She knew her facts, had very good arguments, but the mixture between a very female outfit (white dress, long hair) and her aggressive “male” style did not go down well with a substantial portion of TV-viewers. She lost the election.

In fact, the format that has become a ritual of every US campaign, does not have the same standing in Europe. It wasn’t until 2010 – half a century after Nixon and Kennedy politely exchanged views in Chicago – that the UK hosted its first TV debate. This featured three candidates for Prime Minister, David Cameron, Gordon Brown and Nick Clegg. In Germany, the first debate took place in 2002 with limited attention and attraction –partly due to the fact that Germany as a parliamentary democracy with a multi-party system has various party leaders and multiple coalition options, so party policies are balanced against individual candidates’ charisma.

In the current US election campaign, the discrepancy between content and performance has become apparent again. Hillary Clinton undoubtedly won the debate by a landslide. But will it help her campaign? Trump’s macho rhetoric about her lack of “stamina” and his nonexistent knowledge of important political topics have not harmed his success so far.

More about the author

  • Andrea Römmele , Dean of Executive Education and Professor of Communication in Politics and Civil Society