Impact of Presidential Candidates’ TV Jousts Is Debatable

Impact of Presidential Candidates’ TV Jousts Is Debatable

By Pandu Rachmatika on 01:26 pm Jun 19, 2014

As the presidential election draws closer, public attention has turned to a series of debates between the two candidates. Many TV pundits and commentators firmly believe that the debates will be “game changers” that determine the final outcome of the July election.

That sentiment is supported by survey results announced by several polling outfits such as Cyrus, whose survey in May showed 58 percent of respondents believed the debates could affect their final choice of candidate. The importance of debates would seem to be substantial, however studies done to measure the effect of debates on polls have turned up results that suggest otherwise.

Examination of this topic has taken place in connection to US elections, which have been held for almost 225 years. Among the most comprehensive work is that done by James Stimson in 2004.

Stimson analyzed the impact of debates on the final outcomes of 11 US presidential elections between 1960 and 2000. His final conclusion was “there is very scarce substantial evidence for debates to decide the final game.”

Noteworthy effects of debates occurred in 1960, 1980, and 2000 elections, meaning in only three cases out of the total 11 samples, according to Stimson. Even so, the impacts were insignificant as the debates only served to boost the winners’ vote slightly.

In the 1960 debate between Kennedy and Nixon, the first televised debate in the US, Kennedy was 1 point behind Nixon before the debate according to one Gallup poll. After the debate, Kennedy jumped to lead Nixon by 3 points, although it is difficult to determine whether or not the debate had really contributed to Kennedy’s success. This is because Kennedy’s polls were already on the rise even before that debate, so his success may have been contributed to by factors or issues outside the debate itself.

Now let us take a look at the Joko “Jokowi” Widodo-Jusuf Kalla and Prabowo Subianto-Hatta Rajasa debates. Based on a survey done by LSI (Indonesian Survey Cirlce) in May, a month before the first debate commenced, Jokowi had a 35 percent approval rating, whereas Prabowo enjoyed just 23 percent, meaning there was 12 percent approval rating gap between them in May. In the first debate, analysts and the public in general perceived that Jokowi-JK triumphed over Prabowo-Hatta, mostly thanks to Prabowo’s defensive body language when asked about human rights issues by Jusuf Kalla. Now the question is, did this victory boost Jokowi-J.K.’s approval rating? The answer is probably “no” or “not really,” as suggested by a subsequent survey from LSI in June, published a week after the debate.

Jokowi-JK approval rates picked up to 45 percent, a 10 percent increase from May, but approval for the Prabowo-Hatta pair rose to 39 percent — 16 percent more than in May. Based on this data, Jokowi-J.K.’s triumph in the first debate did nothing to prevent the gap between them from narrowing to only around 6 percent. Perhaps the victory may have contributed a small effect to both candidates’ approval rates. But because the approval rating of the candidate pair that was perceived as “losing” the debate rose more than that of the pair which “won”, it follows that there must be factors outside of the debate that influenced the polls.

Bear in mind that from April to June, public emotions were overwhelmed by intense “black campaign” issues surrounding the two tickets. Furthermore the Jokowi-J.K. approval rate, according to several surveys, was already stagnating, whereas Prabowo-Hatta’s was already on the rise before the first debate was held.

John Sides of George Washington University shares his insight on the impact of debates by arguing that a debate series commenced later in the campaign or only shortly before election day has “inconsequential” effects on the polls’ final results. This is because the debates occur after the majority of voters have absorbed a range of information and decided who their favorite candidates are, long before the debates are aired.

Sides further argues that debates have minimum impact in swaying undecided voters. Based on his research into the 2008 US presidential election, people who watched or were interested in the debates were mostly party loyalists or the candidates’ “die-hard” supporters. Moreover, in the debates between only two contestants — as with this year — both tickets are usually equally matched. This is because each candidate will have read intensive “scenario papers” and been briefed by their respective campaign teams, to keep them on track and minimize the possibility of surprises and dangerous improvisation. This was evident from, for example, Jokowi’s “debate manual” that was seen peeking out from his jacket in the first debate.

Two political scientists, Robert Erikson and Christopher Wleizen even argue that across the series of debates examined in their research, candidates tended to play “safe and steady” in order avoid costly mistakes in front of the voters rather than imposing their natural gestures and genuine ideas. Their argument undermines the debates’ impact on poll results. After the first Jokowi-J.K. versus Prabowo-Hatta debate, social media was full of complaints about the debate being conventional and boring, besides complaints concerning awkward gestures and irritating comments from the debate moderator.

As for the second debate a couple of days ago, we will have to wait for new polling data to be released in order to discuss any arguments regarding its possible impact on both candidates’ approval rates. But a recent Jakarta Globe article titled “Presidential Candidates Offer More, but Not Enough to Sway Swing Voters” suggested that it had even less impact than the first debate.

For future elections, the next administration may have to consider moving the debates to an earlier point in the campaign period, and probably relieve some tension during the debates by creating a more “entertaining” atmosphere, so that the show will hold greater attraction for the public. More important is to let the candidates show their true characters and ideas for the good of the country. Anyhow, as former Canadian Prime Minister Jean Chretien said, “politics is supposed to be fun, as it is actually a game among friends.”

Pandu Rachmatika is an Indonesian political analyst based in Bangkok, and has studied at Thailand’s Chulalongkorn University and Seoul National University.



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