The UK General Election of 2010 saw the introduction of a new and game-changing form of election campaign – the televised Leaders’ Debates. Following suit with what could be considered a necessity in all modern democracies (Coleman, 2000, p. xvii). The debates join a large pool of campaign arenas such as the age-old tradition of canvassing, newspapers, and, more recently, the internet with all of its unique avenues. More widely, televised debates are seen as informative, democracy enhancing and educational. However, are they something that the British population can expect to see in future elections?
For the UK, the televised Leaders’ Debates are in many ways an unprecedented phenomenon following suit of several other democracies. One such democracy that has made such grand use of televised debates is, of course, the USA and their Presidential Debates. There are, however, limitations in comparing the impact of these debates owing to the differing system and thus, the results are systematically weakened, though still relevant. Further, by looking at other countries, such as Canada, Germany and, to some extent, New Zealand, it is possible to draw comparisons and thus analyse the effect the debates that took place in 2010 during the General Election.
For the US, the system allows for a greater focus upon the President thanks to the presidential system it practices. The effect of these debates is felt throughout the USA and looking at when they were introduced can help in highlighting their effectiveness and their usefulness. Not only was the US the first state to introduce televised debates back in the presidential race between John F. Kennedy and Richard Nixon in 1960,1 it has been a nation that has been able to continuously provide a media hype that is felt across the globe. The run up to the elections in the US, as described by Greenberg (2011, p. 137), is akin to a ritual with people tuning-in almost religiously just so voters can choose who it is they then vote for. The Kennedy-Nixon debate of 1960 was widely anticipated to change the way the results of the election, owing to the new method of reaching out to voters – the televised debates. According to Vancil and Pendell, there is a myth surrounding the effect that these debates had on both radio listeners and television viewers, owing to the popular belief that Kennedy, with his media-savviness and suave demeanour, had won the debate against the likes of a stiff and flustered Nixon (1987). The article explains how a broadcaster, Bill Moyers stated that ‘appearance was everything’ in the analysis of the debate, yet, the article goes on to suggest that there is so much more to sway voters in their choices than how they look, such as policy.
The US Presidential Debates are known to have both a positive and negative effect on the outcome of an election; Lanoue and Schrott assert that neither candidate has to win debates in order to come out on top at an election (2008, p. 514). The history shows that drastic losses in debates, again, do not indicate a loss in the wider election framework. The biggest example of this is with the 2004 election where George W. Bush was ten points lower at the end of the debates yet went on to win his election and extend his tenure as President of the United States (ibid.). Abramowitz discusses greatly the 1978 Ford-Carter debates and how this affected voter intentions and does note that there is a ‘persuasive’ effect upon voters, yet ‘there is no evidence of changes in candidate preference...’ (1978, p. 680). Abramowitz does paint the picture that debates as these reinforce voting intentions rather than influencing preference change (ibid.; p. 681).
The US Presidential debates have clearly developed a pattern whereby they may only influence voters in a small way; though, as ever, this is not for every occasion. This brings to the front the…