Tomorrow the two presidential campaigns will intersect for the third and final debate at Hofstra University, New York with Barak Obama likely to be ahead anywhere from two to ten points in the polls. Yet US elections, especially in recent history, have been tight affairs and with no one quite sure what impact race or the economic crisis will have at the ballot box, the outcome for November 4th remains far from clear.
Should John McCain defy current thinking and become the 44th president of the United States it will be on a pledge of low taxation, strong military leadership and an end to excessive Government spending. A McCain election promise that hasn’t been as trumpeted is a pledge to introduce an equivalent of Prime Ministers Questions to US politics.
Judging by the first two presidential debates and the vice-presidential contest between Joe Biden and Sarah Palin, it would be a welcome and worthwhile measure. Due to the vagaries of the election process, teams of negotiators from both sides set about boiling down the Live TV Debate format to what is essentially a shared 90 minute advert, each candidate given the minimal amount of time to speak on any particular subject.
This lessens the opportunity for candidates to stray off-message or, more ruinously, make an election-defining faux pas. The reasons for this are understandable; a face-to-face debate is an uncontrollable set-up, anathema to the political kingmakers behind the scenes.
Great debaters don’t necessarily make good leaders (William Hague is testament to that). However, a more open format might offer greater insight into the candidate’s character as well as their suitability to rule. It would also make the events far more compelling for the vast numbers that tune in. Unfortunately, direct confrontation is not part of the entertainment.
The first debate in Mississippi between Obama and McCain was staid, even sedate. Both candidates remained stridently on-message; self-regulation avoided even the briefest sojourn from the script. When a clash did look imminent (courtesy of a question on foreign relations) the spark was quickly doused by a format that required candidates to move swiftly onto the next issue. This was debate in name only.
The subsequent vice-presidential debate between Sarah Palin and Joe Biden held in St Louis was an equally tepid offering, despite the unpredictable nature of both candidates. Both were seen as potential liabilities by their parent campaigns as the garrulous, gaff-prone Democrat took on the inexperienced and increasingly bewildered Republican.
More than 70 million tuned in expecting a car crash; the only question was who would spin off first. Yet both Palin and Biden exited 90-minutes later unscathed. Again, a format designed to limit opportunity for direct verbal sparring resulted in banality, neither candidate offering more than media-friendly sound bites and mangled syntax. Palin did offer up one bizarre moment of note suggesting that environmental problems were cyclical rather than anthropogenic; yet this may not have proved such a strange assertion to the less environmentally-conscious viewers in heartland USA.
Biden emphasised the need for fundamental change in economic and foreign policy. Palin was less specific, suggesting that troubled nation need only adopt small-town values to once again become Reagan’s “shining city upon a hill”. Nothing was exposed by either candidate. Most importantly for the respective campaigns both left the podium without mishap, leaving the circus to pack up and roll on to Nashville for the second debate between Obama and McCain.
The first presidential debate to be broadcast live on TV was in September 1960, when John F Kennedy stood opposite Richard Nixon in a New York studio. The event offered a portentous insight into the role TV was to play in future elections. The first debate focused on domestic issues, with Nixon offering far more substance than his young rival from Massachusetts. Indeed, the radio audience almost universally agreed that Nixon had won. Yet the 70million who watched the debate on TV (a record at the time) saw it very differently.
Nixon had refused to wear makeup for the cameras, leaving him looking haggard, sweating, ill and old. In contrast, Kennedy came across as young, vibrant and healthy. It provided an early political victory for style over substance. Kennedy went on to win the election (by as little as 100,000), with most commentators agreeing that the debate had played a decisive role.
During the early months of the McCain campaign, the Arizona senator had revelled in the small, “town hall-style” meetings, which allow for greater interaction with the audience. This was the format agreed to for the second debate, offering McCain an opportunity to claw back Obama’s advantage. However, Nashville’s “town hall” proved a fickle friend.
Parallels can be drawn with the Nixon/Kennedy debate. While Obama strode confidently about the platform or perched casually on his chair, his opponent tended to shuffle, appeared uncomfortable and, most damagingly, looked every one of his 72-years. Although unlikely to be decisive, this was not the big performance McCain supporters had expected.
In regards to substance, the event was nondescript, almost dull with neither offering any advance of what had previously been said. The highlight, a McCain finger pointed towards Obama, referring to him as “that one,” offered the Democrats scant ammunition, but it was nothing more than a manufactured controversy.
With four weeks to go, McCain is now clearly positioning himself as the underdog, with the debate in New York his last chance to convince the American electorate that he should be given the reigns of office. The Republicans should take heart from historical precedent. In October 2000 Al Gore led George Bush in the polls by 11 points; eight years later and Bush is still in the White House.
The question remains can a debate, particularly one in which verbal repartee is deliberately hamstrung, offer McCain any hope? Again, historical precedent suggests the Republican has a chance. In 1980, one week before the election, Jimmy Carter debated Ronald Reagan leading by five points in the polls. After the debate the numbers had switched and Reagan went on to win the election.
With less than a month to go and one debate left the race for the Whitehouse remains wide open.