Are Televised Political Debates a Good Idea?

Hannah Godfrey

Two years ago, the British public witnessed the first ever set of Prime Ministerial debates as part of the 2010 general election. This followed decades of wrangling among politicians and pundits over whether the debate format was suited to the British electoral process. There is a strong argument to be made against candidate-centered debates in Britain, given that citizens vote only for their local representative and not a national leader.  Although we do not directly elect our Prime Minister, however, there is an equally forceful case to be made that the leader of the winning party directs policy and the political agenda. As a result, the transparency and opportunity for scrutiny gained through debate is valuable in any political system.

Furthermore, debates can have a significant impact on the outcome of elections. In the 2010 debates, many Britons were surprised by the performance of Nick Clegg, the leader of the Liberal Democrats, which has traditionally been the third party in the British political system. Clegg’s debate success led many pollsters to predict a surge in parliamentary seats for the Lib Dems; however this was ultimately not realized. In fact, although the Lib Dems increased their share of the vote by 1 percent, Clegg’s party actually lost 5 seats they had won in the 2005 election.[1] Nevertheless, the debates certainly raised two-party government as a serious possibility, and ultimately, the Liberal Democrats were able to join the Conservative party in the first coalition government in Britain since the Second World War. The impact of debates on election outcomes has strong precedent in the United States, where many commentators argued that in the 1992 debates, George H. W. Bush damaged his position simply by looking at his watch while a member of the audience asked a question.[2]

Although leadership debates are new to the electoral process in the U.K., presidential debates in America have been a fixture of the election cycle since 1960 – and the potential of debates to showcase style over substance is something that must be considered. In the very first presidential debate it is telling that the principal thing people remember is that Kennedy chose to wear make-up while Nixon did not. Kennedy won the debate with television audiences, while Nixon won among radio listeners, demonstrating the dangerous potential of debates to reward appearances, sound bites, and rhetoric over meaningful argument. Style has continued to be a vital aspect of presidential debates – did anyone notice that in the second presidential debate of the current election cycle Romney and Obama switched the color of their ties to that of the opposing party?  The way that the candidates present themselves is clearly important to American audiences. Similarly, Vice-President Joe Biden made many astute points about the administration’s policies and provided strong critiques of the Romney-Ryan campaign, yet was lambasted by many in the (conservative) press for laughing too much and thus appearing “un-presidential.”

Another significant problem associated with debates is their potential to misrepresent information and policies through inaccurate or partisan use of data. Moreover, in a pressurized debate situation, it is easy to forget a fact or misspeak, which can completely change the nature of the information. The immediacy of a debate means that if either candidate says something that is incorrect, they often cannot be corrected until after the event. In the 1992 and 1996 debates, most Americans claimed that the majority of their information on policy came from the debates, leaving a significant opportunity for voters to receive inaccurate information.[3] Fortunately, this is no longer as much of an issue; the advent of the internet has caused the emergence of many new sources for political information, as well as immediate fact-checking.

Although debates can clearly be problematic, and are certainly better suited to a presidential system than a parliamentary one, they have become an entrenched tradition of the electoral process. They certainly have benefits, and have the potential to change the direction of the race for power. Furthermore, their entertainment value makes them highly appealing to voters on both sides of the Atlantic.


[2] Maria Hook and Adrian Hitchens, “Televising leaders or prime ministerial debates”, p.6, accessed at [accessed 10/20/2012]

[3] Hook and Hitchens, “Televising leaders or prime ministerial debates”, p.5


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