It is only natural to take the American presidential debates seriously. After all, they have been game-changing in the past. During the first ever televised debate, the PBS commentator compared John Kennedy to “a bronzed warrior”, while his opponent, Richard Nixon, famously appeared sweaty, uncomfortable and stubbly. Similarly, Ronald Reagan’s devastating mockery of Jimmy Carter in 1979 – “there you go again” – made his opposite number appear verbose and petty, while he seemed confident and astute by comparison.
Kathleen Hall Jamieson, professor of political communication, rhetorical theory and criticism at the University of Pennsylvania, has argued that presidential debates do not change people’s minds as often as one might expect. They are better seen, she says, as ways of informing the public.
Yet the truth seems to be even more depressing. The American comedian and talk show host, Jimmy Kimmel, staged a revealing prank on his ABC late-night show, Jimmy Kimmel Live. Several hours beforethe second debate, he had a camera crew take to the streets of Los Angeles and ask members of the public for their reaction to it. The footage may have been heavily edited, but it appears to show that the vast majority a) claimed to have watched the fictitious debate, b) were convinced that their favoured candidate had won, and c) tried to “wing it” by offering generalised answers to specific questions.
One man memorably said that Obama was “stronger this time around in his choice of answering questions and everything”, and that his highlight was “the booing on Mitt Romney’s behalf”.
Of course, it would be foolish to draw hard and fast conclusions from a highly contrived stunt like this. Nevertheless, it gestures towards what may be an uncomfortable truth: for the vast majority of the American electorate, the presidential debates not only rarely change people’s minds, but they leave them no better informed than they were before. As seen on the Telegraph website