Yesterday morning, on the Breakfast Show on BBC London radio, CMCI Lecturer Dr. Harvey G. Cohen commented on the history of American presidential campaign debates, in light of the first British Prime Minister debates taking place this week. He spoke about how such debates have served to focus the electorate on the campaigns, and have proven especially important for candidates courting undecided voters in the middle of the political spectrum.
Cohen also mentioned how over time, the debates have usually been more about creating memorable television moments than the explanation of policy, as particularly seen in the 1960 presidential debate between John F. Kennedy and Richard M. Nixon, when TV viewers thought the tanned and relaxed Kennedy won the debate, and radio listeners felt Nixon had the upper hand. Many observers argued that because Nixon had lately suffered from a cold, looked a bit grey around the gills and refused to wear make up that he appeared less telegenic, thereby costing him the debate among TV viewers, which were the majority of the audience. Cohen noted how the current Prime Minister also tended to give a better impression on radio than on television. It’s also pertinent that Ronald Reagan in 1980 and Barack Obama in 2008 were able to use the presidential debates to quell doubts about their seasoning as leaders, a goal that Tory challenger David Cameron is probably wishing to duplicate during the 3 weeks of Prime Minister debates here in the UK.
In any case, it will be very interesting to see how the unique British approach to these debates unfolds.