Unless you’ve been living under a rock – or outside the sphere of the US news media, a place that sounds pretty appealing right now – you know that tonight President Barack Obama will engage in a debate with his challenger, Mitt Romney.
Are you going to watch it?
Estimates say more than 50 million people will. Or 60 million, depending on your source. While I don’t want to make this a political post, this morning I started thinking about why so many people will watch. Whether it’s based on one issue or many, people already seem pretty committed to their candidate of choice. Will the debate really change any minds?
I listened to a Public Radio International story that compared the French Presidential debate with our version. The French debates run three hours long, and the candidates don’t use notes. They’re grounded in a structured format, where the participants make an argument, then support it with three substantive points.
In comparison, the reporter described American debates as more scripted, with preplotted and rehearsed ‘zingers’ designed to tag the opponent. He said it often seems as if the candidates are not engaging with each other; rather they use the forum to get their own points across. As Todd Graham, director of debate at Southern Illinois University, says in a CNN article: “For God sakes, don’t actually debate. If you actually debate you tend not to do well in the polling the next day. The public tends to think they (the candidates) were too aggressive and mean and they don’t like them.”
Makes it sound more like a choreographed political speech to me.
If we’re not going to hear a substantive debate, why watch? One argument suggests that the debates are more like public job interviews, where we get to see how our guy is going to respond or who throws down the best one-liner. In a CNN article, history professor Julian Zelizer suggests it’s all about their appearance.
“The mistakes the presidential candidates have made over the years are numerous. Poor body language has been a common blunder. As much as candidates focus on perfecting the substance of what they say before the cameras, a large number of Americans are really most interested to see how they say it.”
We saw Nixon looking sweaty and pale during the first televised debate, which arguably lost him the election, and Ronald Regan asking if we were better off than four years ago. Between the gas lines and the Iranian hostages, poor President Carter was done right there. One writer suggested that in today’s media market, Abraham Lincoln and Franklin D Roosevelt wouldn’t survive to election, because neither had the strength and/or physical attractiveness to present the right image.
So maybe we’re watching to see who cracks under pressure. Will Mr. Romney look at his watch, the way George HW Bush did, giving voters the impression he had somewhere better to be? Or will President Obama sigh in response to his opponents points the way Al Gore did, coming off as condescending? According to their campaigns, they’ve been brushing up on their ‘zingers’ and should be ready to come out swinging, each trying to reframe the election to their own benefit.
And, like the old Romans watching their gladiators, 50 or 60 million of us will be camped in front of our TV screens, waiting for the killing blow. Will you?
…and for more political entertainment, here are the sources I used for this post…