Sunday, December 16, 2012

Don't bank on televised leaders' debates at the next general election

Andrew Rawnsley has an article in today's Observer asking whether the 2015 general election campaign will see the televised leader debates we had in 2010:
Will there be TV debates next time around? When I put the question to one of Mr Cameron's circle, he responded: "Ask me in two years." The honest answer is that each of the leaders will make a calculation whether it is in their best interests much closer to the time. As the incumbent, Mr Cameron will have to weigh up the perils of taking part against the risk of being seen to run away. If they do happen again, it will not be because the politicians think TV debates are good for democracy but because they think they will be good for them.
This should not be such a surprise.

We all know the stories about how the youthful, dynamic JFK defeated the unshaven Richard Nixon in the 1960 television debates. What is less well known is that there were no further debates until the 1976 Presidential contest between Gerald Ford and Jimmy Carter.

In that election both candidates feared they were not well known to the public - Ford had become President after both Nixon and his deputy had resigned; Carter was a little-known figure from the South - and so gambled that the extra exposure from televised debates would help them.

Only after that fluke did the debates become an integral part of US Presidential elections.

So don't bank on there being televised leader debates at the next general election. And if I were David Cameron I would take some convincing that having those debates would be to my advantage.


Nick said...

US Presidential debates weren't that settled after 1976 - I was reading about the 1980 election recently, and the inclusion of John Anderson in debates caused some problems, and I believe Reagan didn't take part in them all.

However, I suspect the broadcasters here may have a decent trump card to play by threatening to bring in a empty chair (and/or Nigel Farage) if Cameron backs out. That said, I think Rawnsley's suggestion of debates over a longer period because the date of the election is set might be the model we see.

Simon said...

I'm not sure I buy this narrative that the debates would be bad for Cameron, but that pulling out would be worse. Firstly, given how badly things are going for the Tories, (and are they really going to get any better?) isn't it likely that by 2015 the debates could hardly make things worse?

Then there is the fact that, despite his Flashman nature, Cameron is probably stronger on personality than policy. Yes, he lost out in the 2010 debates, but a large part of that was that there was one candidate who was much stronger. This time around Nick is hardly going to win any of the debates outright, and presentation isn't Ed's strong suit,

Finally, it surely matters to the Tories more than anyone that this is seen as a three/two hoarse race, and the sight of three leaders going head to head does a lot to cement that pictures, and should help sure up his core vote.

So I think his strategists would do Cameron a disservice to dismiss the possibility that the debates might be helpful to him out of hand.