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Expert Comment: US Presidential Debate

White House Thursday 4 October 2012

Dr. Robert Busby, Senior Lecturer in the Department of Politics, History, Media and Communication at Liverpool Hope University, reviews the first debate in the US Presidential Election.

The onset of the presidential debates brings to the fore one of the prominent features of contemporary American politics. The debates are unlikely to be decisive in changing opinion polls, mobilizing voters or generating highly controversial headlines. Rather they generally serve to consolidate the existing support entertained by the candidates. The term debate is a loose one in this context. The candidates are face to face, but in large part the event consists of a series of rehearsed statements, most often bearing little connection to the questions asked.

Televised presidential debates have been a regular feature of the election process since 1976. There was a series of debates between Nixon and Kennedy in 1960, but then a gap of 16 years until Ford debated Carter. In the contemporary period candidates tend to have a strong grasp on strategy for the debates and are coached extensively in preparation for the event. Having been through primary races and having engaged in televised intra-party debates, both Romney and Obama are well schooled in dealing with the pressures of live events. 

Romney appears to have gained the plaudits from the first encounter between the two, associating himself with the American middle class and playing heavily on the economic and deficit problems which afflict America.  Obama, who is marginally ahead in the polls, appeared reserved in his presentation, in part because he doesn’t have to, or need to, take chances with controversial responses. Both reeled off statistical evidence to back up opposing ideological positions, Obama supporting government as an integral part of economic recovery, Romney seeing it as a hindrance to economic growth. Although both will perceive the first debate as a success, Romney’s strong and confident performance may well give some new impetus to what was a flagging campaign. 

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