US presidential election: Do the TV debates really make a difference?

The first presidential debate between Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump saw sparks fly. But how significant are these televised debates? Chris Bond reports.

Contenders: Neither Hillary Clinton nor Donald Trump delivered a knock-out blow. (AP).

As job interviews go they don’t come much bigger.

Not only are you vying for the right to become president of the United States, but you’ve also got to go head-to-head with your rival live on TV, in front of one of the biggest audiences in history. Pressure? What pressure?

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Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump may have the lowest ratings of any US presidential nominees in living memory, but in six weeks time one of them will become the most powerful person on earth. And after a summer of mudslinging the respective Republican and Democratic candidates finally squared up to each other in the first of three live televised debates ahead of November’s election.

Following Monday night’s clash most commentators felt Clinton, who was more measured and restrained, came out on top. The polls, though, remained divided with many showing that viewers thought Trump had fared better.

Stephen Coleman, Professor of Political Communication at the University of Leeds, watched the debate from start to finish. “Both of them were trying to go for a knock-out blow but that didn’t happen.”

The TV debates often reinforce voters existing views but Prof Coleman believes they are still important given the size of the audience watching. “They matter because a large number of people have still not made their minds up who they will vote for. These debates have been televised since 1960 and Americans are used to judging people based on how they appear on TV,” he says.

“The audiences for these debates tend to be made up of people who already vote, but a lot of people who don’t have any interest in politics tuned in for pure entertainment and to watch a stand-up battle.”

Prof Coleman believes Clinton performed the better of the two with Trump facing an uphill struggle to regain the initiative. “People watch to see if there’s someone they feel could represent them and in this respect Trump didn’t do too badly. But at the end of the day Clinton came across as more of a politician.

“You shouldn’t come out of a debate still wondering if someone is fit to run for president and with Trump some people are still asking that question.”

But just how significant are these TV debates? It’s 56 years since John F Kennedy took on Richard Nixon in the first televised debate in US history. The cameras favoured Kennedy who looked calm and composed throughout, while Nixon appeared unshaven and pallid.

Just before he went on camera Nixon applied a layer of balm to try and hide his five o’clock shadow - a cosmetic cover-up that melted under the studio lights with sweat clearly visible on his upper lip.

Afterwards most viewers believed that Kennedy had won debate, though radio listeners felt that Nixon had edged it. In the end Kennedy won a narrow victory in that election - with his triumph in the debates believed to have played a key part.

Another memorable moment came in 1984 when Ronald Reagan, then 73, was asked if he was too old to be President. “I will not make age an issue of this campaign. I am not going to exploit, for political purposes, my opponent’s youth and inexperience,” he quipped. It was a classic Reagan line perfectly delivered by the one-time actor - and even solicited a laugh from his Democratic opponent Walter Mondale. No one remembers what else was said, the story was all about Reagan’s sense of humour and a few weeks later he won a landslide victory.

But if ever there was a cautionary tale about how not to present yourself in front of the watching world it came 16 years later when Al Gore and George W Bush went toe-to-toe. Gore, who was Vice-President at the time, appeared to have done well in the opening debate except for his repeated sighing when Bush was speaking which became the main talking point afterwards.

It set up one of the closest, and most dramatic, presidential elections of modern times before Bush finally emerged victorious.

You might not be able to win an election in a TV debate, but it you certainly can lose one and as we approach the endgame of what has been a particularly bruising US presidential contest the stakes couldn’t be higher for Clinton and Trump.