What Do We Learn From Political Debates? (Not Much, In My Opinion)



(Author’s Note: This is the seventh in a series of political articles for CommPRO.biz that I’ll be writing leading up to Election Day. FYI – My first public relations job was with a political firm, where I worked on local, statewide and presidential campaigns. In this column, I question if anything is learned from political debates.)

Arthur Solomon

Two debates are in the book – the first Trump and Biden presidential one and the Pence-Harris vice presidential debate.

Two more debates, on October 15 and 22, between the president and former vice-president are still on the table, but the table is lopsided and they might slip away. 

But thus far, what have we learned that we didn’t know prior to the first two debates (or for any previous ones with different candidates)?

That President Trump is a fabulist, a bully and says anything that he thinks will go over with his base and only cares about himself? But we already knew that.

That former vice-president Biden comes across as an empathic individual who cares about people? But we already knew that.

That Vice President Pence can stick the knife into an opponent with a smile on his face and is an excellent debater. But we already knew that.

That Vice President Pence is fearful of saying anything that will upset the president. But we already knew that?

That Sen. Harris is a skilled debater who is not afraid to go blow by blow with Pence. But we already knew that?

That Sen. Harris would refer to the Biden agenda more times than giving her own opinions on policies? But we already knew that.

So did we learn anything new from the debates? Yes, five things:

  • We learned nothing new about how the candidates feel about issues, and 
  • The debates provides a two hour or so free commercial for the candidates, and
  • Candidates largely ignore the moderator’s question and turn every question into a filibuster for their talking points, and
  • If a candidate doesn’t want to answer a question they just ignore it, and
  • Under the current system, it’s impossible for the moderator to maintain control.

So, in my opinion, viewers who follow politics learned nothing new from the debates. Those who don’t, and tune in for the first time, might learn something, but only if they further investigate the candidate’s entire position on a subject the morning after.

The fact that hardly anything new is said by the debaters doesn’t mean that a debate can’t influence an election. And that’s what makes watching them by political pros a must see event.

Like vultures waiting for the kill, political pros hope that their opposition candidate messes up so their candidate can come out of the debate with new support. That doesn’t happen too often, and when it does history shows that debates bumps normally don’t last. But sometime they do. 

After the debate between President Trump and former vice-president Biden on September 29, Biden widened his polling lead nationally by eight points, to 53% to 39%. And thus far it’s still sticking. But that might be due to Trump’s unruly behavior during the debate more than Biden’s effort.

But occasionally even debates in which candidates act civilly to each other can make a lasting difference and can influence an election. Such was the case in the first 1960 televised debate between Sen. John F. Kennedy and Vice President Richard Nixon. Nixon was seen on the small screen perspiring and with a five o’clock shadow; Kennedy young and dynamic. The comparison between the two vaulted JFK from trailing Nixon to the presidency. During a 1976 presidential debate against Georgia Governor Jimmy Carter, President Ford said, “There is no Soviet domination of Eastern Europe.” When given an opportunity to clarify the remark by moderator Max Frankel of the New York Times, Ford refused, insisting that Poland, Romania and Yugoslavia are free from Soviet interference. Ford’s comment haunted him throughout the remainder of the campaign, with many analysts saying it helped Carter win the presidency. And in a 1992 Town Hall debate between President George H.W. Bush, Bill Clinton, and Ross Perot, Bush’s action of checking his watch during the debate illustrated his frustration of having to explain his actions and his distain for having to  debate, unlike Clinton, who, perhaps, is the best candidate since FDR to convince voters that he cares for them by speaking to them.

So by all means tune in debates. But don’t expect to learn anything new. 

The Unspoken PR Tenet: Bad News Is Good News for Our Business By Arthur SolomonAbout the Author: Arthur Solomon, a former journalist, was a senior VP/senior counselor at Burson-Marsteller, and was responsible for restructuring, managing and playing key roles in some of the most significant national and international sports and non-sports programs. He also traveled internationally as a media adviser to high-ranking government officials. He now is a frequent contributor to public relations publications, consults on public relations projects and is on the Seoul Peace Prize nominating committee. He can be reached at arthursolomon4pr (at) juno.com or artsolomon4pr@optimum.net.


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