Having been the centrepiece of US Presidential Campaigns since the 60s, it was thought that the introduction of television debates to the UK in 2010 would be the first of many. However, recent exchanges in the press now cast a shadow over them taking place again this year. It’s not necessarily the challenge or risk of the debate itself that is slowing down the process, but rather the visual aspect whereby candidates will be standing alongside each other as equals.
An incumbent leader will never favour television debates. David Cameron has had the opportunity over the last four and half years to cultivate his image as a world leader, as is his right as Prime Minister. Gravitas, standing and experience count for a lot. The public may have a wide range of ideas and opinions on policy, but it’s universally accepted that everyone wants a leader that commands respect.
What the television debates do, and what the Conservative Party should be worried about, is that they level the playing field. Standing next to the Prime Minister, opposition leaders Ed Miliband, Nick Clegg, Nigel Farage and whoever else ends up on the stage, will be instantly elevated to equals. As far as portraying a positive representation of themselves in a debate, how an individual looks, carries themselves and delivers an argument is often as important as what is actually said.
Harking back to November 8th 1960, following the first ever US television debate, polling suggested that those Americans that listened to it on the radio concluded Richard Nixon was the victor, whilst those that watched on television went for John F Kennedy. This is because JFK smiled, made eye contact, stood upright and paid close attention to his delivery, he knew that the visuals of the debate were as important as the message.
When delivering communications to mass numbers of people, it should be remembered that there will always be a percentage that will not actively engage with the content. Style, looks and delivery will be what hooks this audience in and is remembered.
The television debates will be the most viewed part of the General Election campaign, and the parties know the importance of getting those 90 minutes right. In addition to the millions watching live, video clips on social media will be re-watched every second of every day leading right up to polling day.
Part of the reason they took place last time is that David Cameron was leading in the polls, and then Prime Minister Gordon Brown thought it was worth the risk. This time round the election is a lot tighter, with commentators agreeing the only certainty is uncertainty. David Cameron and his advisors will just have to judge if holding up the debates is comparatively better in terms of the election than the visual of standing as an equal alongside Miliband, Clegg, Farage and any other leader that is invited.