The Significance of Presidential Debates

Buhari Vs Atiku

The issues in next year’s presidential election are many and the candidates must talk through them for the people to make an informed choice, writes Olawale Olaleye

Writing on ‘The Role of Presidential Debates’, the Bill of Rights Institute, a United States-based organisation, devoted to educating individuals about a free society, gave a catchy and rather instructive description of the 1960 debate between Richard Nixon and JF Kennedy as a critical marker of that year’s electrifying campaigns. It further contended that even the mere demeanor of the candidates weighed heavily on the results posted at the end of the day.

First, ponder this bit: “In 1960, a sweaty, nervous-looking, and makeup-free Richard Nixon squared off against a youthful and energetic looking John F. Kennedy in the first nationally televised presidential debate. Historians generally agree that this televised appearance had a profound effect upon the result of the election. Since then, the importance of these debates has grown immensely. For many, these debates are what they rely upon to decide upon which candidate will receive their vote.”

With a good understanding of the role presidential debates had played in virtually all of US elections, save for the 2016 election, which proved bookmakers wrong and inexplicably so, the culture of debate is arguably an integral part of the US electoral tradition, which even in the face of certain reservations, cannot be yanked off. Many other developed societies have also etched this culture into their electoral tradition.

There is no debating the importance of giving voters the opportunity to hear candidates discuss and debate key issues prior to elections. Although there have been controversies on the role of presidential debates in modern election cycles particularly, if the current format of debates in the US helps or hurts the very objective, no stronger argument has been so far advanced on why debates should no hold.

In their joint report titled: “Presidential debates and their effects: Research roundup”, Denise-Marie Ordway and John Wihbey, argued that whilst the ‘news media often anticipate televised presidential debates as a national event of great importance — a kind of Super Bowl of American democracy, political scientists have noted that, in contrast to the party conventions, the general election debates do not typically have dramatic effects on voters.’

To the extent that the debates are important in terms of persuasion, they held the view that the format might slightly favour the challenger, about whom the public knows less. They also feared that gaffes could potentially hurt candidates, as with ‘Gerald Ford’s faulty knowledge of Eastern Europe, George H.W. Bush’s looking at his watch and Al Gore’s audible sighing’.

Therefore, while reporters often look for a winner and loser, viewers experience the debate differently, making two simultaneous judgments: One, whether or not the candidate seems “big enough” to be president; and two, whether one of the candidates is a better choice.

This was why a political scientist, Thomas Holbrook, once pointed out that the earlier debates are more powerful in terms of voters’ learning about candidates. In his study “Political Learning from Presidential Debates,” Holbrook states that “The evidence overwhelmingly indicates that the most important debate, at least in terms of information acquisition, is the first debate … The first debate is held at a time when voters have less information at their disposal and a larger share of voters are likely to be undecided.”

Thus, talking about the value of presidential debates as in others, first, it increases voter knowledge on issues, because in debaters’ often disparaged encounters, they always take on the deceptions perpetrated by the other side, thus exposing each other to the learning of the audience.

Another noteworthy importance or weight of the debates is their capacity for what political scientists in the US call “agenda setting”. The salience of a given policy or campaign issue in the public mind, Denise-Marie Ordway and John Wihbey wrote, could rise as a result, and this might play to the strength or weakness of a particular campaign.

Curiously, however, political scientists have cautioned against overestimating the influence and even democratic utility of debates in general; and they put caveats on the ability of social science to measure their true effects. Experimental studies confirm that citizens have a great deal of difficulty making meaningful judgments about two competing messages and assertions of fact, as in a debate setting.

Yes, there might be increased voter knowledge on issues, but it does not necessarily equal persuasion, Denise-Marie Ordway and John Wihbey reckoned. Rather, debates, they maintained, could reinforce partisan positions, with partisans merely becoming more critical in their choice. Moreover, the debates are only one communications data point in the overall campaign — taking place amid a sea of ads and other cultural conversations — and are difficult to disentangle from other dynamics.

In the final analysis, one thing has not been taken away from the culture of debates in a presidential bout and it is the fact that it is helpful in decision-making. This is why often voters would say the candidates’ commercials were not helpful. However, some scholars think that, when asked about the influence of debates, citizens are predisposed to assign them outsized significance – they conform to ideas of rational deliberation — and to downplay the power of negative ads and other such opinion-shaping communications.

The run-up to next year’s elections has been paved with loads of intrigues and familiar political shenanigans, such that the level of fluidity and uncertainty are almost inestimable. But elections must hold next year and the people must go out to elect one of the many contenders at all levels but with eyes gazed on the presidential bout.
The Nigerian Election Debate Group (NEDG) and Broadcasting Organisations of Nigeria (BON) recently announced the dates for the 2019 presidential election debates. While fixing the presidential debate for January 19, that of the running mates is to hold next Friday, December 14.

Unfortunately, what should ordinarily excite the people has rather exuded huge indifference, because the average Nigerian politician especially at the presidential level is always avoiding debates. And the reason is simple: they hardly can understand the issues let alone able to sell them.

Although some of the presidential candidates, including Alhaji Atiku Abubakar of the Peoples Democratic Party (PDP) and Donald Duke of the Social Democratic Party (SDP) had indicated their readiness to participate in the debate, the sitting president, Muhammadu Buhari, unfortunately appears to be subtly avoiding the debate. This unsavoury situation appears to be killing the mood already and gradually the debate culture. In 2015, the same thing happened between Buhari and former President Goodluck Jonathan, same with 2011.

There is no over-estimating the importance, weight or value of debates in any electoral process. They allow the people to know their candidates well and better. They increase the knowledge of the people on issues defining the election. They help the candidates to set their own agenda as well as analyse their strengths and weaknesses. They expose the attitudinal dispositions of the candidates in different ways. They enrich the electoral process and make the eventual choice deserving of their votes. The advantages are a legion and cannot be glossed over.

But when leaders start to avoid debate for obvious reasons, then, the electoral culture of such a people is doomed. It is true you can’t give what you don’t have. But why seek to give what you don’t have? These are the abnormalities that presidential debates or any debates at all unearth and take care of. And except Nigerians begin to embrace this critical culture with huge impact in the choice of leaders, to even begin to discuss progress and development is impossible, because they cannot even stand before you to define what development is.

Nigerians, for this election, must insist on the presidential debates and every intending candidate must be ready to defend his or her policy document, failing which makes the people’s choice of candidate easier.