The party conventions in the United States were virtual. Large-scale campaign meetings were cancelled for months. Party employees were no longer able to ring the doorbell at voters. This year, the coronapandemic has largely made the traditional form of campaigning for the US presidential elections impossible. One tradition remains: the television debate.
Tonight, in Cleveland, Ohio, is the first debate between President Trump and his Democratic opponent Joe Biden. There is hardly any public presence and the media have limited access. Yet millions of Americans will see the two presidential candidates on one stage next night, along with debate leader Chris Wallace.
It has always been difficult for political scientists and opinion pollers to determine the extent to which television debates affect the outcome of presidential elections. There is a consensus among historians that at least one television debate has had a major impact.
Nixon‘s sweat drops
In 1960, the young Democratic Senator John F. Kennedy took on Republican Richard Nixon, who was vice president under President Eisenhower. It was the first debate in American history to be broadcast on television.
Kennedy had been well prepared and rested. He came across fresh and smooth, while Nixon was still at a campaign meeting a few hours before the broadcast. Furthermore, he had been seriously ill in the weeks before, which caused him to be exhausted.
Unlike Kennedy, Nixon refused to put on makeup before the broadcast. Millions of viewers saw Nixon standing under the hot studio lights with drops of sweat and light stubble on his face; a great contrast to the tanned, smooth-shaved and relaxed Kennedy.
This is what the debate in 1960 looked like:
According to polls, a majority of Americans who had seen the debate on television indicated Kennedy as the winner. Voters who had followed the debate on the radio judged that Nixon had won.
But because the television debate was a novelty for America, many more people had followed the debate on television. Kennedy eventually defeated Nixon in the presidential election.
Sparkling single liners or blunders
But it is not often that TV debates are remembered because they were the decisive factor in the elections. Much more often it was about sparkling oneliners or blunders. When Ronald Reagan’s age (73) was raised in his television debate with Walter Mondale in 1984, who was almost 20 years younger than him, he paraded this with a quintstroke. “I won‘t make a point of age in this campaign. I am not going to exploit my opponent’s youth and inexperience for political reasons,” said Reagan.
In 1992, for the first time there was a so-called townhall debate in which voters could ask questions directly to the candidates. While Democrat Bill Clinton answered voter questions in that debate, his Republican opponent and incumbent President George H.W. Bush was watching his watch. He made such a disinterested and absent impression. Underdog Clinton was supposed to beat Bush in the election.
A bad debate performance is just not an automatic neck blow. In his first television debate against Mitt Romney, Barack Obama fell through the basket, but a few weeks later he won his reelection in his slippers.
More weight than normal
When it comes to this year‘s debates between Trump and Biden, there are two elements that can create a new dynamic. First of all, the president himself is a unique factor. Normally, presidential candidates prepare to the last detail for television debates.
Joe Biden, who is not known as a brilliant debater, has been engaged in so-called mock debates for weeks in which Bob Bauer – White House counsel under Obama – plays the role of Trump. But Trump himself, like four years ago, refrains from doing this kind of exercise. He prefers to debate freely, which makes the debate difficult to predict. Although he does say that Rudy Giuliani, his lawyer and the former mayor of New York, advises him.
Joe Biden is comfortable to call the dinosaur of the Democrats, for half a century he has been active in politics. But what else do you need to know about the man who’s up against Trump? Correspondent Arjen van der Horst explains:
A second unpredictable element is the coronapandemic. The election year was so severely disrupted by the coronacrisis that the campaigns were invisible for a long time. The television debates therefore gain more weight than usual and next night will be the first real showdown between Trump and Biden.
Tens of millions of TV viewers will at least witness a clash between two extremely different visions of America.
‘Build thatwall and make America great again’. We all know him, Donald Trump. But what exactly does he stand for? Correspondent Arjen van der Horst explains it again: