2 Dec 2009

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?  

– Get new posts from Gary Gibbon’s blog emailed to you. Sign up here for free (link takes you to Google’s Feedburner service).

Tweets by @garygibbonblog

2 reader comments

  1. Traver says:

    Gary – doubtless any pre debate haggling will be over wether it’s Ant and Dec, Brucie or ( a late dark horse here !) Barrymore who hosts it ! Any statistic should be left open to the audience to vote on with a “higher or lower” buzzer. If any Leader is caught lying (um er getting their facts unfortunately mixed !) they should be set a challenge which a hysterical Staurt Hall can give a commentary on. Categories they should be judged on should include; wistful gazing, really determined speech accompanied by equally determined gurning, the amount of completely hopeless promises, and of course last but not least the quantity of references suggesting mockingly how all Bankers are a blot on humanity ! I hope these well considered suggestions help nthe agenda – Meantime I’ll be doing something else WORTHWHILE !

  2. adrian clarke says:

    there is a major difference in this country.The incumbent is questioned by the pretenders every week in parliament.
    In a face to face debate Brown will not have the softball questions tossed to him by toady labour politicians.I believe both his opponents look younger ,keener and more able.He is like a lost dinosaur from another age

Comments are closed.