x Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 21 January 2018

US presidential debates losing relevance

According to tracking data released more than 37 million Americans between 18 and 49 tuned in to watch the first contest between the incumbent and his challenger.

According to tracking data released after last week's opening presidential debate between Barack Obama and Mitt Romney, more than 37 million Americans between 18 and 49 tuned in to watch the first contest between the incumbent and his challenger.

Compare this to the average 32 million Americans who sat in front of their television sets during this summer's Olympics to watch an evening highlights package of the day's events. The debates stand out as the banner events of the quadrennial political circus to elect the most powerful man in the world - the keenly anticipated moments when, in theory, campaigns are won and lost - so it is reasonable to expect they will attract viewing figures comparable to the chase for glory in London.

History famously records there has been at least one decisive moment to emerge from such debates when, in 1960, Richard Nixon appeared shifty under the studio lights while John F Kennedy was revealed in an altogether warmer light. The rest is a matter of record: JFK squeaked home at the ballot box and Nixon would have to wait a further eight years before entering the White House.

But one wonders how much longer this 52-year-old precedent can be cited as being relevant. The point back then was that Nixon was caught out by the shock of the new. No candidate would ever or will ever make the same mistake again. Suggesting the events of 1960 remain timely is a bit like saying The Beatles - who celebrated their own 50th birthday earlier this month - are central to the current musical landscape. In a way the Fab Four are, of course, still fabulously important, but in a thousand ways they aren't.

For the millions who did watch, last week's debate was a dull affair. Neither candidate managed to land a knockout blow, although Romney's quip that "I'm used to people saying something that's not always true and just keep on repeating it and ultimately hoping I'll believe it" when dealing with a question about taxation for high net-worth individuals, offered a very poor facsimile of a sucker punch.

The problem here is not just the candidates - although it is fair to say the president works best in uncontested space and his challenger is often wooden in his delivery - it is also the overly managed format they operate in. The debates need to encourage more freedom in their exchanges for the viewer to truly see what the candidates are made of.

Even Tuesday night's "town meeting" format for the second debate in New York is unlikely to raise the standard too much higher. Why? Because there is an abiding feeling that debates are less about winning and more about not losing. Both candidates will, instead, be concentrating on being faultless rather than fiery.

There is a problem too with how these events are analysed. We are obsessed with instant verdicts. Few who watched last week's contest will have been terribly convinced by either candidate but, in the absence of declaring a no-contest, Romney was crowned victorious. Why? Because pre- debate, he was the candidate with more to do. He was hardly strong on the night, but he wasn't weak either, and on such showings victories are forged.

Finally, one has to wonder how decisive the debates really are in convincing the undecided voter.

Bringing us back almost to where we started, the single best one-liner ever uttered in election season - "Senator, you're no Jack Kennedy" - was delivered by vice presidential candidate Lloyd Bentsen to his hapless opponent Dan Quayle in 1988. It remains the perfect political put-down, but it had almost no bearing on the final election result. Romney will hope his words force voters to change their minds next month.

History suggests he shouldn't count on it: seven GOP candidates have tried to dislodge incumbent Democratic presidents in the past century. Only Ronald Reagan, in 1980, has succeeded.