There is a purpose to US presidential debates, and it isn’t just because it makes good theatre, writes Kate Stanton.
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No-one loves giving their opinion like an American, says Jim Middleton, an Australian journalist and Sky News correspondent who covered the region for the ABC in the 1980s.
He’s “still spellbound”, he says, of the freedom with which Americans — from janitors to bankers — will talk about politics, even to strangers. It’s a dream for journalists who need snappy sound bites.
“You can walk up to somebody and ask their opinion and you'd get three or four sentences lucidly expressed,” he says. “The lack of fear that Americans have in expressing themselves, in standing up for what they think, I think it’s a great virtue.”
Voting rates in the US are widely condemned, but it is a country with a history of spirited public engagement with the political process — from the town hall debates of 17th century New England, where citizens were invited to contribute, to today’s local elections, where people still run highly-politicised campaigns for school board and local sheriff.
It’s Americans’ penchant for enthusiastic self-expression that might help Australians understand the US debating tradition, which tends to favour individual personalities over the loyalty to party or platform you’ll see in a British-style parliamentary system.
This will be worth remembering on Thursday (Australian time), when Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump face off in the third and final debate of the US presidential campaign, giving American voters their last chance to see the two candidates on the same stage before they head to the polls on November 8.
An end to the 2016 debate cycle might come as a welcome relief to political observers, many of whom described the tone of the second debate with varying degrees of despair. The New York Times called it “almost unremittingly hostile”. BBC News thought it was “easily the most tawdry exchange in 56 years of televised presidential debates.” Saturday Night Live said it was the “worst ever”.
Yes, the second presidential debate was unusually bitter, most likely because of the events that preceded it — revelations that Mr Trump had bragged about groping women and his pre-debate press conference with Bill Clinton’s accusers were new lows, even for a particularly rowdy election cycle.
But political boffins hoping for more rigorous policy analysis would do well to look elsewhere. America’s televised debates are about style, personality and expectations.
The first general election presidential debate, which took place in 1960, was also the first to be televised. It paired the telegenic Senator John F Kennedy against then-vice president Richard Nixon, who appeared wan and sweaty on camera.
People who watched the debate on television thought Kennedy won; those who listened to it on the radio thought Nixon did. When Kennedy won the election more than a month later, he remarked: “It was the TV more than anything else that turned the tide.”
Sally Young, a media commentator and Melbourne University lecturer, says that’s not necessarily a bad thing. The battle for the American presidency is far more individual than the competition between potential Australian prime ministers. The American president is chosen by the people, rather than the party. It’s fair to know what kind of person you want to represent the American people.
“You do want to know what they’re like,” she says. “I think it’s kind of important in a way that in other countries it might not be.”
Dr Young says that debates are a “specific time for people to pay attention — even for only a little bit — and to see someone think on their feet, how well they can perform under pressure, how well they know their content.”
In Australia, more than 1 million people watched the Clinton-Trump showdown, double the number of Australians who watched their own party leaders, Bill Shorten and Malcolm Turnbull, take part in a nationally televised debate last May.
The pressure of a political campaign is also a chance for the American public to test a potential president before they take office, when they are far less likely to be challenged so directly. For better or worse, a US journalist would never question a sitting president the way Leigh Sales regularly grills Mr Turnbull.
“In the US as well there’s something about the aura of the presidency,” Dr Young says. “He doesn’t show up in a parliament and face questions and have to respond the way a British prime minister and Australian prime minister have to. He is a different sort of figurehead.”
In the first two debates of the 2016 general election, Mr Trump was widely condemned for his sniffling and the way he lurked behind Ms Clinton, who has had to contradict popular opinion that she is out-of-touch and untrustworthy.
Jim Middleton says 2016 has been an unusually personal election. When you have the country’s potential first female president facing a former reality show host, you almost need to see them side by side.
“It’s valuable for the health of any democracy to have as wide a public exposure in situations where the protagonists can’t entirely control the message,” he says, especially in the case of a politician such as Mr Trump, who regularly holds large rallies with ardent supporters and rarely speaks to people who disagree with them.
Most pundits believe that Americans, many of whom have already started voting, will have made up their minds by the last debate on Thursday. But it still makes for good theatre.
With Mr Trump sliding in the polls, even in some states usually held by Republicans, people will be looking to see whether he makes any last ditch efforts to change the narrative of the election. Ms Clinton will have to answer for a series of embarrassing email leaks, though she won’t want to risk a major mistake that changes the election narrative already working in her favour.
High politics are a rough and bruising business, says Dr Young. “There’s a lot of information coming out that’s unsavory so it’s kind of not great to be knowing all of that. But at least it’s coming out.”