When Joe Biden and Donald Trump step onstage for their lead-off debate on Tuesday night, they will be taking part in a ritual that has been a feature of American presidential campaigns since 1960.
For voters, debates represent a rare moment when candidates for the highest office in the land stand side-by-side before the nation in what amounts to a televised job interview, with the citizens themselves in charge of the hiring.
As with any job interview, the exercise can be both awkward and revealing. Debaters strive to present their best versions of themselves, the way all job applicants do.
But unlike traditional employment interviews, these auditions are conducted in front of tens of millions of people – with the other candidate for the gig poised just a few feet away, ready to pounce. In such a combustible setting, absent a safety net, anything can happen.
Given the risks of debating, most politicians would probably prefer not to have to participate. But debates, especially at the presidential level, are no longer optional. They have become an expectation looked forward to by millions. For the American public, and for the country’s political media, it is impossible to imagine a modern campaign without presidential debates.
In 1960, when John F Kennedy and Richard Nixon inaugurated the tradition, there was little indication these events would take root. In fact, the intensity of those first debates – and the unanticipated damage they did to Nixon’s candidacy – led many observers to conclude that such an experiment would never be repeated. And they were nearly right.
Although Kennedy had verbally committed to debating his opponent in 1964, the young president did not live to see a second presidential campaign. His replacement, Lyndon Johnson, had no interest in debating – nor did the Republican nominee in both 1968 and 1972, Richard Nixon. Having learned his lesson the hard way, Nixon pointedly steered clear of confronting his rivals on a debate stage.
Only in 1976, when underdog incumbent Gerald Ford challenged Jimmy Carter to a series of TV debates, did the ritual resume.
In every American presidential election since, the major-party candidates have come face-to-face before voters on live television. Normally each cycle includes three debates between presidential nominees plus a single debate between the vice presidential candidates, though there have been as many as four (Kennedy-Nixon) and as few as one (Reagan-Carter).
Public response to TV debates is nothing short of tremendous and has been since the Kennedy-Nixon days. In the United States, the most-watched TV programme of any year is inevitably the Super Bowl, with ratings upwards of 100 million people. But in election years, the second-most-watched programme is always a presidential debate. For example, the first debate in 2016 between Hillary Clinton and Trump attracted a television audience of 84 million, with additional millions watching via digital platforms. Only the Super Bowl drew more viewers that year.
Television ratings are not the only measure of the public’s engagement with debates. That same Clinton-Trump debate, in addition to being the second most-watched TV show of 2016, also broke records as Twitter’s most-tweeted-about event to date.
What makes debates so fascinating to viewers – and so terrifying to politicians – is their live, unscripted nature. People watch a debate knowing that at any moment the entire enterprise can go off the rails.
Presidential campaigns are preoccupied with exerting control – over message, media coverage and how candidates engage with the public. Yet TV debates present the opposite of a controlled situation. No matter how much the campaigns labour, they can neither predict nor manage what happens on the debate stage. Those 90 minutes of live broadcast unfold outside the boundaries of choreography.
Which is why campaigns work so strenuously to get their candidates ready in the days and weeks leading up to debate. Although Trump is not expected to prepare in any conventional way, the Biden team will closely follow a pre-debate template that has been in place for decades: A sort of “boot camp” in which the candidate gets physically, mentally, and psychologically steeled for the clash.
Biden will bury himself in briefing books about the policy issues likely to be discussed. He will familiarise himself in minute detail with Trump’s record, especially the more incendiary public comments and tweets. Biden will rehearse specific language to use in the debate, carefully crafted to attract attention in the press and on social media. He will undergo a series of full-scale, real-time mock debates against a stand-in for Trump. He will withstand withering attacks from this mock Trump, then watch a video replay of the session while his coaches offer their critiques. Even the cosmetics of Biden’s appearance – his clothing and makeup and hair – will get a thorough preview under the lights.
With preparation this intense, we might expect debaters to be able to handle anything that might arise. But once a live debate comes on the air, it assumes a life of its own.
Much of what we remember from debate history involves spontaneous moments that no one could have anticipated:
- Nixon’s perspiration and unhealthy pallor.
- An audio breakdown that brought 27 minutes of silence to the first debate of 1976.
- Ronald Reagan wavering in and out of coherence in the 1984 debates.
- Michael Dukakis in 1988 delivering a dispassionate answer to a question about his wife’s theoretical rape and murder.
- George H.W. Bush glancing down at his watch during the 1992 town hall debate, giving voters the impression he did not want to be there.
- Trump stalking Hillary in 2016.
Yet, despite their prominence as media mega-events, and their attraction for the public, debates appear to have a limited effect on the outcome of elections. Especially in these times of political polarisation, presidential debates are more likely to reinforce existing preferences than change minds. For candidates, the objective becomes to generate enthusiasm among one’s supporters, to use debates as vehicles for mobilising the vote.
Just as in regular job interviews, only one candidate will ultimately be offered the position. And just as in the professional world, it is possible the applicant who performs worse in the interview lands the job anyway – that is what happened with Trump and Hillary Clinton in 2016. As history shows, in the final analysis, debates are many things – informative, entertaining, competitive and compelling. But rarely do these televised job interviews, on their own, determine who gets hired as president of the US.