Judging by the reaction on Twitter, some of the viewers most excited about the first presidential debate were not in Denver but in Delhi. “Instead of one-sided public speeches ‘we the people’ must demand for ‘amne samne‘/face to face open-civil-debates thru moderators!” tweeted an enthusiastic Kiran Bedi, rattling off the many dream combinations: “Sonia G vs Gadkari”, “Modi vs Rahul vs Arvind”, “Rahul/Akhilesh/Mamta/Mayawati/Modi/Nitish/Jaya/++”.
Our TV anchors seem no less keen, perhaps for somewhat self-interested reasons. “Debate Day in the US underlines archaic notions of our own Political Big Guns. Catch any of them doing this. EC should make it mandatory,” proclaimed Barkha Dutt. CNN-IBN Rajdeep Sardesai echoed the sentiment: “Suprabhat. Can we have a Modi versus Rahul presidential style debate ahead of general elections? Happy to moderate!”
The prospect immediately cheered by Narendra Modi supporters like Kiran KS, who declared, “If Rahul Gandhi ever stands up, even with paid media’s heavy preparation, to debate with Narendra Modi, his career will end in 11 minutes:)”
A heartening thought except for one inconvenient fact: Debates rarely matter. The dismal proof was right there up on the screen in the numbers from CNN‘s flash poll. 67 percent of their respondents said Mitt Romney won the debate. 58 percent said Romney looked like the stronger leader, and 35 percent picked him as more capable of handling the economy, compared to 18 percent who picked Barack Obama. A whopping victory indeed.
But in the midst of all the handwringing over Obama’s lacklustre performance, Democratic pundit James Carville raised the key question: “Did you move the needle on favourability?” The answer: Nope, not one bit. The same respondents showed no movement in their overall opinions of the two men, and the focus group of undecided voters produced a total wash. Both candidates were able to convince 8 such viewers to switch sides.
Historically, presidential debates in the United States rarely change anyone’s mind. The fabled John F Kennedy v Richard Nixon debate — supposedly determined by the Republican’s shifty-eyed, sweaty performance — merely cemented Kennedy’s existing lead. Bill Clinton actually slipped slightly in the polls despite Bush Sr’s patrician demeanour. And as conservative pundit David Gergen pointed out on CNN, “Some people think Kerry won all three debates and still lost the election.” And he did so by a bigger margin than Al Gore who was universally deemed a disaster in his debates with the same opponent, George W Bush — and still won the majority of the popular vote.
The Detroit News offers the reason why: “By the time candidates meet for debates, there aren’t many undecided voters open to persuasion.” And the few who haven’t made up their mind don’t care enough to watch the debates. “Their motivation is so slight they don’t do anything that requires a little bit of involvement or interest,” says political scientist James Stimson.
Moreover, the reasons why a candidate “wins” a debate are often arbitrary. For the most, it’s an expectations game, rigged in favour of the underdog. The media has a vested interest in keeping the horse race close. The press narrative is rigged to favour outcomes that can be spun as unexpected upsets or big comebacks. Hence in any presidential debate, the underdog is always more likely to win, and the incumbent almost always loses his first debate. The expectations are higher and so are the standards of performance — he is the president, after all. Obama fared poorly today, but so did Ronald Reagan when he first faced Walter Mondale.
The weaker candidate who is perceived as wooden or unlikeable or less intelligent will always score bigger brownie points for the slightest improvement. Hillary “won” her Democratic debate by appearing softer, more feminine when she got a bit misty-eyed in 2008. When media pundits now award all three debates to Kerry, they forget that they awarded the second one to Dubya for beating low expectations set by his first disastrous outing against Kerry.
So contrary to the claims of Modi supporters, the media is more likely to anoint Rahul the winner of any such encounter — not because they are “paid” but because Rahul is universally viewed as the less adept speaker. Rahul’s performance will be judged by the low expectations set by his last big outing, ie notoriously bad speech in the Parliament. Just being able to stand his ground against a Modi — with a reputation as a powerful rhetorician — will earn him a “victory.”
But does this mean political debates are pointless? Not quite. As I’ve written elsewhere on Firstpost, the great strength of the American electoral process is that it is truly democratic. All aspirants to power have to learn to engage with their citizens, face to face, without the security of privilege or position — as Romney and Obama will in their town hall debate on 16 October. The debates also put the candidates in the spotlight and under scrutiny, without the safety net of staged photo-ops or rallies. And they are forced to engage with one another on important issues of policy, be it Medicare, tax cuts, Social Security, defence spending et al.
Our leaders rely instead on canned speeches that primarily consist of slogans and promises, strung together into a standard template, and repeated over and over again. India is great… Yes, you will have electricity… Beware the foreign hand… The rhetoric relies on cheap and lazy pandering, and is mostly incidental to the campaign appearance. The arrogant assumption is that their mere presence — helicoptering into a village, and spending, say, 40 minutes delivering a prefab speech to the masses — ought to be sufficient. Indian politicians couldn’t be bothered to make a case for themselves as leaders. They rely instead on freebies, cheap hyperbole, fearmongering and caste/ethnic affiliations to win that precious vote.
Debates may not determine an election, but they symbolise a core democratic principle: If you want the gaddi, convince the voters that you deserve it. So yes, it’s about time we had that Modi v Gandhi slugfest, and said goodbye to feudalism by other means. Though the bigger hurdle to staging such a debate may well be finding a TV anchor who doesn’t yell at the camera, interrupt every answer, and take up most of the air-time.