The second presidential election debate this year in St Louis provided one of the most acrimonious encounters between the two contenders. While many expected Hillary Clinton to provide the coup de grace that would end her opponent’s campaign, it was Donald Trump that provided all of the fireworks. Trump managed to answer questions about his ‘locker-room’ video and sexual impropriety clearly and turn the focus onto Clinton and her husband. The Republican Party candidate charged that there had been ‘nobody in the history of politics in this nation that’s been so abusive to women’ as former president Bill Clinton, and that Hillary Clinton would be in prison over her national security failure surrounding emails on her private server. Trump, while not taking an advantage in the race to the White House, certainly managed to assure supporters that the race was not over.
The Presidential debates have been influential throughout their history. The debates were first held in the 1960 election that saw Senator John F Kennedy and Vice President Richard Nixon spar over the issues of the day. Kennedy had argued throughout his campaign that the Eisenhower Administration had been negligent and allowed the Soviet Union to create a ‘missile gap’ between itself and the US. American influence throughout the world during the Cold War was at risk said Kennedy. In the first debate, the then relatively unknown Kennedy showed an air of charm and sophistication that won over the minds of the American public. Nixon, recently recovered from a stay in hospital, dabbed the sweat from his brow and upper lip under the hot studio lights, and the image lasted long in the public’s mind. Those that had listened to the debate on the radio however believed that Nixon had won, but style won over substance. Despite Nixon rallying well in the subsequent debates Kennedy’s tanned good looks, in comparison to those of a fatigued and underweight Nixon proved to be a decisive factor. Kennedy and his advisors later attributed winning the election by a majority of just 0.17% of the popular vote down to his mastery of the television.
Despite the success of the debates in taking television to a new forum, the event has never been a required one – Lyndon Johnson never enjoyed the medium of television and therefore refused to take part during the 1964 election. Nixon never trusted the media after what he felt was an unfair portrayal in the 1960 debates and avoided any televised debate in both the 1968 and 1972 elections. The next election that had a televised debate was in 1976 contested between incumbent President Gerald R Ford and Democrat candidate Jimmy Carter, former governor of Georgia. Ford had been advised by his staff not to take part in the events. Despite being intelligent and experienced in politics, Ford was an uninspiring speaker. Ford had become Vice President because of the resignation of Spiro Agnew, and then President through the resignation of Richard Nixon because of the Watergate affair. Ford felt that the debates would show the American public that he deserved to be there on merit, not just by chance.
The debates initially proved less of a turning point than those of the Kennedy-Nixon era. That is until the second debate. When asked a question about American-Soviet relations Ford produced an answer that would irrevocably damage his chances of staying in the White House. In the height of the Cold War, with the Eastern half of Europe firmly under the yoke of Soviet-directed communism Ford said ‘there is no Soviet domination of Eastern Europe and there never will be under a Ford administration.’ Despite being given the chance to correct himself Ford remained committed to his answer. Such a basic error was to be costly to the Ford campaign. Despite a late Ford rally Carter, with an unassailable lead in the polls thanks to Ford’s mistake, was duly elected the 39th President of the United States.
The current debates seem to be less about policy and more about mudslinging, and judging on the second debate’s explosive encounter it suits Trump more. Trump is comfortable with the television cameras thanks to his work on the Apprentice, and slicker with his adlibs. Despite Clinton’s attempt to move the debate onto policies and audience-led questions she failed to lead him into making a Ford-like basic error. Clinton will need to make sure that in an election that is proving to be unlike any other, she avoids similar errors. Whether the debates prove to be anything other than car-crash television remains to be seen.