Do Debates Matter?

by Alex Massie

There's lots to be said for Jonathan Bernstein's critique of my dissatisfaction with the way set-piece political debates are organised. From this you will gather that I disagree with him.

He argues that I have a "goo-goo" view of these contests that can only be shared by political obsessives. Perhaps so, but my main point is simply that such "contests" are sold to the public as a means of evaluating the respective merits of the motley gang of candidates paraded before them for their disapproval when, in fact, little could really be further from the case since such "contests" generally demand little more than the rote recitation of talking points. When was the last time substance actually mattered?

Consider the 1992 Presidential debates. About the only thing that anyone remembers is George HW Bush looking at his watch. An awful lot of guff and pop-psychology was extrapolated from that single second. Did it help the electorate make an informed choice? Not really. At least not in any substantive fashion.

And that's fine. What I object to is the pretence that these contests are actually debates in which rival candidates demonstrate their prowess or moxy or whatever. They're nothing of the sort. I don't expect voters to evaluate candidates as a debate judge and adjust their preferences accordingly because that would be a) silly and b) stupid.

There is at least a greater, more persuasive, case for these contests in the American system than in the British. Gordon Brown has been a national figure for 20 years; David Cameron has been leader of the Conservative party for four years. He's been on TV many times a week for several years. We don't need to learn more about these men and a glorified press conference is not likely to enlighten even low-information voters too much.

Of course Jonathan is right to argue that voters have many different reasons for endorsing a given candidate and, frankly, a "goo-goo" (or elitist, though he's too polite to put it in such terms) idea of debate might not help them but if debates tip the balance then, crikey, we're probably in a spot of trouble.

And I fear that he's commendably if unfortunately idealistic when he writes:

Debates also force candidates to make promises, and that's an important part of representation.  Of course, because campaigns (especially in the US) are long, often the promises made by candidates at high-profile events such as debates will sound to close observers as merely repeating talking points, but that's OK; the fact of repeating those particular talking points when everyone is paying attention makes those promises more important to whichever candidate takes office.  So that's an important and proper part of high-profile debates, although it doesn't have much to do with which candidate "wins" the debate."

As a political scientist I'm sure Jonathan has evidence to support the seemingly quaint notion that voters take any promises, far less those made in the quasi-hurly-burly of a debate, terribly seriously. I suspect they're more disenchanted than that. And, in any case, I'd be reluctant to argue the case that politics suffers from a deficit of promises....

Sure, my preferred format for these freak shows wouldn't demonstrate the Prime Ministerial fitness of any presumed "victor" but nor does the existing way these things are done really help the average, absent-minded, voter. That's all!

You can tell me why I'm wrong at and you can, if less probably, tell me that I'm right at the same address.