televiseddebate

Thursday 26th March saw the first of the Leaders’ Debates in the run up to the 2015 General Election, with both David Cameron and Ed Miliband receiving a grilling from Kay Burley and Jeremy Paxman respectively. Twitter exploded during the questionings, with the usual accusations of bias on both the presenters’ parts. Yet some of the comments were surprising, the strangest being an accusation that David Cameron has had botox, a criticism that is not what we would usually expect from the quizzing of our current Prime Minister. So how did we go from wondering how David Cameron is going to save the economy, to wondering whether he’s had botox?

Political debates in the run up to General Elections are fairly new to this country, with the first one taking place between the leaders of the three main political parties (then Conservative, Liberal Democrat and Labour) in the run up to the 2010 Election. You may even remember some of the catchphrases to come out of them, such as Gordon Brown’s infamous ‘I agree with Nick’. It was generally acknowledged that Gordon Brown had won the debates on substance, but Nick Clegg won the debates on style and as a result, the Liberal Democrats experienced a massive surge in support, going on to lead the country in a Lib Con Coalition Government. But can appearance really make such a difference when it comes to campaign trails?

While new to this country, televised debates have been happening in the United States for the past 55 years. The first, in 1960, came about when the then Vice President, Richard Nixon challenged the relatively unknown John F Kennedy to a debate. As one of the first Catholics to run for Presidency on a major party ticket, and with one hardly remarkable term in Senate, John F Kennedy was clearly the underdog. Heavy and thorough preparations countered his inexperience, and people who had exclusively listened to the televised debates pronounced the two leaders more or less equal, or indeed Nixon the victor. However, Kennedy won over a healthy portion of the 70 million television viewers. But how?

Television was a new medium for politicians in the mid 20th century, and they were still working out how to use it to its best advantage. Kennedy talked straight to the camera, creating an intimate connection between himself and each and every viewer. Weeks of outdoor campaigning (and post broadcast whispers of cosmetics) meant he was tanned and healthy, in comparison to Nixon who had been in poor health, and in looking at the reporters who asked him the questions, came across as unintentionally shifty. The result of the 1960 election is legendary, with Kennedy winning 49.7% of the popular vote. A remarkable 50% of voters said that they had been influenced by the television debates.

While polls show that there is somewhat of a political inertia when it comes to the voting habits of Millenials (only 50% of eligible people aged 18 – 29 actually voted in 2012), the televised debates pull in more viewers than the biggest television programmes, with viewing figures for the 2010 debates peaking at 10.3 million. Thursday’s figures had yet to be released at the time we wrote this post, but it remains to be seen just what impact the debates will have on the Election results.