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Will the leaders’ debates have an impact on the campaign

Will the leaders’ debates make a difference? Expectations are high (I keep hearing the word ‘historic’) and it is frequently said that the debates will potentially change the campaign. Maybe they will – it depends on what is said by Cameron, Clegg and Brown. But I think it is getting hyped and we shouldn’t expect too much.

If there are no gaffes and all the party leaders stay true to form, then the impact of the debate will depend on the audience’s prior views. If you are already a fan of Cameron, then you will view his performance favourably (and the same goes with the other leaders). This seemed to be the case in the Darling/Cable/Osborne debate a couple of weeks ago.

In his book on US campaigns, Presidential Debates, Alan Schroeder warns against mythologizing the impact of the debates. He gives examples where the candidates’ performance in the debates had seemingly little impact. Dan Quayle’s performance in the vice presidential debate in 1988 is often cited as disastrous, but it did not stop Bush/Quayle from winning. Schroeder also cites a bad performance by Reagan in a debate in 1984 as having little impact on his fortunes. While his performance may have improved in later debates, that example shows that it is possible to recover from ‘losing’ in one of the exchanges. It all depends on the other factors in the campaign (and how far the performance in the debate ties in with the salient issues).

Schroeder also notes how the debates are a campaign event, with endless analysis on strategy in the media. The audience approaches the debates not just as an exchange of arguments, but with all these background factors in mind, looking for slip-ups and looking to confirm their existing views.

The influence of the debates is not just on the audience watching as it is broadcast, but on the media coverage of the debates. The coverage will tell us who ‘won’ the debate (and in the absence of any gaffes or knock-out blows, this may be something open to debate). The media will choose which bits will be repeated over and over again. This partly depends on the candidates providing an appropriate soundbite and avoiding a brief blunder – but it also depends on which clips or soundbites get picked up upon. For example, much is now made of Al Gore’s sighing in the 2000 campaign. But there were other clips, like Bush’s smirk while talking about his record on the death penalty in Texas, which (while noted) did not get as much coverage in the media. Much of the lasting impact of the debate will depend on the post-match spinning and analysis.

None of this is to downplay the importance of the debates. They offer a new format for seeing the leaders and how they interact. It can provide a lasting image of a politician. The debates provide a focal point for the national coverage where people in all constituencies share the same agenda. They will also reach an audience beyond political junkies including those less engaged by politics.

Given the limits of party election broadcasts and mediated interviews, it is a new tool for political communication. But if all stick to the preparation, it will probably give a view of the leaders that we are already familiar with.

Categories: Election, Media
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