Presidential Debate – Must See TV?

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…

Why French Presidential Debates Are Rough Business

The Presidential Debate: Romneys ‘Last Best Chance’ 

In Debates, Presidential Candidates’ Tics and Tells Matter 

What History Tells Us About Presidential Debates 

Presidential Debates: A History of the Biggest Gaffes and Zingers 

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15 Responses to Presidential Debate – Must See TV?

  1. Amanda says:

    Nope. I’ve got better things to do than watch two adults whine and stomp their feet like toddlers.

    • Liv says:

      Heh. The husband is going to a friend’s house so I don’t have to listen to him yell at the TV. Considerate of him, don’t you think?

  2. Kathleen Duffy-Conway says:

    Hell ya! I’m mixing the martinis as we speak! LOL But it’s really just a show. I mean we know that one man just cannot change the reality that bread is almost $5.00 a loaf!!!!

    • Liv says:

      I know, right? The President’s a good guy and all, but there’s only so much he can do. Thanks for the comment, Kathleen. Cheers, mate!

  3. Probably not going to watch. First off, it’s on way too late for this early bird 🙂 I may tune in for the beginning but I soon lose interest. I didn’t watch the conventions. I like Obama, he’s not perfect, but we agree on a lot but not all of same issues. There’s nothing Mr. Romney can do or say to change my mind.

  4. Tami Clayton says:

    I always watch the debates to see the “performances”. They are never a game changer for me. Plus, the skits on SNL will be even funnier if I’ve seen the original debates. 😉

    • Liv says:

      “…the skits on SNL will be even funnier if I’ve seen the original debates.”
      Okay, that might be the best reason yet to watch the darned thing. Thanks Tami!

  5. I’m like Tami, but part way through, I will probably pull out my IPad and start playing word games because I’ll have had enough. Chances are I’ll miss the one big gaff that gets the biggest laugh when the SNL folks do their magic.

    I love the way the French do it, according to your source. It makes so much more sense, although like many others, there isn’t much the “other” candidate can say that could change who I vote for since I vote according to my political ideology and that fits more closely with one candidate than the other.

  6. I’ll play SongPop and watch the highlights and get my news from Colbert and Stewart 🙂

  7. Sharon Clare says:

    I’m Canadian and didn’t watch the debate, although I was surprised to hear news today that Romney probably ‘won’ the debate. I like Obama. Also found that the last Canadian debate was pretty poor. Questions weren’t really answered, but were used as air time to get whatever message across, too often a slight against one of the other candidates.

    • Liv says:

      It sounds like the Canadians are following the American model, which is too bad. I’ll just be thankful when it’s all over. Thanks for checking in, Sharon.

  8. Suzanne says:

    Last night’s presidential debate?
    It was crazy good.
    The question that sums it up (IMO)
    “What is the role of our Federal Government?”

    • Liv says:

      I think you’re right, Suzanne. That question has been key since way back, and the way they answer it is pretty much what distinguishes the two parties. I’m glad you had a good time watching, and thanks for checking in!

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