Terry Prone: When all is said and done, TV debates won’t win you the votes

The general consensus is that television debates are about killer blows that shift the voting public.

17th Jun 2024
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Originally published in the Irish Examiner.

Television debates are about killer blows that shift the voting public and make all the difference to the end result of an election. That’s the general consensus.

Asked to prove this thesis, older commentators invariably go to the US presidential debate between John F Kennedy and Richard Nixon.

Kennedy came directly to the joust from Palm Beach in Florida, where he’d been having sex, ingesting amphetamines, and lying around on pool loungers, as a result of which he looked tanned, relaxed, and handsome.

Nixon came directly from the hustings and looked like an unshaven, unrelaxed hell. He’d lost so much weight electioneering that the collar of his shirt gaped on him.

The rest of the narrative around this one is that Kennedy won hands down and this, in turn, led to his landslide victory. So satisfying, that myth.

The only problem is that it’s untrue, start to finish. Yes, Kennedy looked a million times better than Nixon, although, if we want to be trivial, he’d have looked better than Nixon even if Nixon’s shirt had fitted him.

But only the people watching TV thought he won. The people listening to radio were sure Nixon had beaten him. In the election itself, Kennedy won. However, it was anything but a landslide victory.

Yet in the US and in Europe, the dogma of the political debate as pivotal to electoral outcome has never lost its strength. So, in the weeks before the recent European Parliament votes, candidates took to mainstream and social media to complain bitterly about being excluded from the debates broadcast by RTÉ. Such exclusion, they claimed, was going to goose their chances of election.

A little fact-checking, post-factum, allows us to adjudicate on those claims and examine just how electorally consequential TV debates are.

All of the parties/candidates were informed at the outset of the elections that RTÉ would host a total of 15 live broadcasts across television and radio — these included Upfront with Katie Hannon, Prime Time, Six One News, The Week in Politics, Drivetime, Today with Claire Byrne, and This Week.

An awful lot of debates, in other words, although neither political parties nor candidates stopped to admire the national broadcaster’s commitment to this element of its public service brief. Instead, they focused on the three main television debates: Upfront with Katie Hannon (Midlands-North-West), Prime Time (Dublin), and Prime Time (South).

As these were studio-based, participation was limited to eight candidates and RTÉ in a document sent to all parties/candidates set out the criteria for qualification in these three debates.

The criteria was based on past electoral performance and RTÉ used these as they had previously been challenged in the former BAI (now Coimisiún na Meán) and in the High Court, where they were upheld as fair.

But any candidate/party who does not qualify typically feels the criteria are unfair to them and will fatally disadvantage them in the election.

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