TV debates: lessons from Carter and Ford
Behind the scenes the Prime Ministerial debate negotiations grind on between the parties.
We broadcasters always reach for the 1960 Kennedy/Nixon TV debate when we try to illustrate where it all started but the 1976 debate might be the closer precedent.
The 1960 debate was the first of its kind but neither Nixon nor Kennedy was an incumbent.
There wasn’t a presidential candidates’ TV debate for another 16 years after 1960. It was only in 1976 that President Gerald Ford decided that things were looking so bad in the polls he needed a last, desperate throw of the dice.
Ford had not been elected to national office – he was a mid-term replacement as vice president after Spiro Agnew’s resignation and had succeeded to the presidency after Nixon’s resignation.
Going into the 1976 Republican Convention, Ford was 20 per cent behind the Democrats.
His team – Dick Cheney was chief of staff – decided to risk what no incumbent had risked before and call for a debate with the Democrat nominee Jimmy Carter.
An article from Presidential Studies Quarterly conveys the painful negotiations and power play – it was sent to me by a UK party leader’s aide who is in the middle of the current negotiations.
It shows the White House trying to use office to get their way, the arguments over whether the debates should be standing/sitting (Ford had more than three inches height advantage on Carter).
Should candidates be allowed notes or no notes (Carter’s team thought Ford might fall apart without notes), the dispute over venue (they went outside Washington for the debates).
And then as now there was an argument over the number of debates (the incumbent wanted more but had to settle for three).
Carter won the election, of course, but Ford managed to winnow the Democrat lead down to 2 per cent by polling day.
Related: Labour fightback or fag end?
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