Can debates even swing votes?

So, the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) has decided that its presidential pair—top of the ticket President Peter Mutharika and his running mate Everton Chimulirenji—will not take part in the face-to-face televised debates.

The reason for the self-exclusion, according to DPP secretary general Grezeldar Jeffrey, is that the party does not have confidence in how the debates have been organised.

The move has received mixed reactions, with critics saying the ruling party is exuding its usual dosages of executive arrogance while its supporters say DPP is justified because the debates’ organisation is skewed in favour of certain candidates.

There is no doubt that these debates are crucial to giving voters the opportunity to hear candidates discuss how they will address the key issues affecting the country and their lives.

I believe that people should be given the chance to pick out the policy positions of various candidates for political office so that they make informed choices.

Televised debates do give the whole nation the ability to see candidates for themselves in real time, on stage where they can either be at their best or their worst.

And in helping to expose the candidates’ style and substance—both of which are critical to governing—voters are shown a glimpse of their potential leaders, including their temperaments, the depth of their understanding of the issues that affect voters and how well they can cope under pressure and/or under scrutiny, among other issues that voters deserve to know about candidates.

I am not sure though if the first two vice presidential debates have really facilitated any constructive dialogue or are simply a platform for political posturing, witty sound bites and clever retorts.

Have the vice-presidential debates so far even come close to discussing, substantively, public policy and principle or we have just had four folks rattling out their opinions and a few memorised lines that mostly went unchecked and unchallenged by the other candidates who are supposed to have different policy positions or at least tweaked ones?

That said, submitting oneself before folks who will decide your political fate has both advantages and disadvantages, which I want to believe DPP has looked at. For example, one goof and those few awkward seconds of debate footage gets shared and viewed endlessly on Facebook, Whatsapp and other digital platforms for ever.

On the other hand, if you can draw some blood from your rivals with sharp and intelligent lines of policy as well as character rebuttals and attacks, you might just trigger domino effects on your competitors’ party and their candidacy.

But your lines—and how you project yourself on television—can also be your downfall by a few percentage points. Take the first nationally televised debate in the United States in 1960 between Democrat nominee John F. Kennedy and Republican nominee Richard Nixon.

The story is told that “Kennedy appeared to viewers as calm and collected, well groomed, and handsome, maintaining a comfortable level of eye contact with the camera and exuded an inviting demeanour. Kennedy also had makeup applied before broadcast. Nixon, on the other hand, began to sweat, looked unshaven, and shifted his eyes between the camera, the moderators, and the clock. In the opinions of many voters, Nixon appeared ill-at-ease and unprofessional.”

On election night, it was Kennedy who delivered the victory speech after beating Nixon by a narrow margin.

Does this show that presidential debates have an electoral impact? Can the debates really influence vote choices or they are simply a fashionable form of political entertainment? One can even go as far as declaring that the effect of general election debates on outcomes is overhyped. And, yes, are they even worth risking exposing a party’s not-so- articulate and not-so telegenic candidates?

I mean, given the strong partisan loyalties—mostly based on tribal and regional lines—haven’t most voters, including debate viewers, already made up their minds about who they will be voting for? How many are willing to change their minds because of what happens in some series of debates?

These are all genuine questions, but as the Kennedy-Nixon outcome shows, you never know what can put you over the top, especially in a presidential race as tight as this one where every free avenue for putting forward your message matters and may just deliver a few percentage points to you.

And this is a very close presidential race with a highly polarised electorate; which means that even a shift of just a few percentage points could matter a great deal.

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