Have the presidential debates become entertainment?

The very first televised debate took place in 1960 between John F. Kennedy and Richard Nixon. That debate helped Kennedy turn the political winds in his favor. He arrived looking confident and strong, while Nixon, who was ill and had just been released from the hospital, was unable to appeal to viewers.

In 2016, televised debates are also playing a significant role especially in the Republican primaries, which started out as an incredibly crowded race where every percentage point and every second of speaking time counted. It is easy to think of the presidential debates as little more than entertainment in this current race, and no more important politically than a football game. During and after each debate, the media rushes to describe the spectacle, often using words more commonly seen in sports commentaries, such as “attacks,” “winners” and “battle.” However, televised debates remain as important today as they were in 1960.

In today’s politics, advertising is everything, and televised debates offer the perfect avenue to get the message out. On Jan. 28, 2016, Republican Presidential hopeful Donald Trump chose not to attend the debate that was scheduled on that day, instead deciding to hold a separate rally. As it would turn out, the debate gained more attention than Trump’s rally, with over 12.4 million people tuning in according to Time. Additionally 221,000 people were tweeting about the event, and those tweets were seen 162.8 million times. Trump himself admitted that skipping the debate probably ended up costing him the primaries in Iowa, according to CNN. Previously, Trump had been projected to win the Iowa caucus. This effectively demonstrates the advertising power of televised debates. They cause  more publicity than any one candidate can do so on his or her own. They bring in even more viewers during the actual presidential debates; the debate between Mitt Romney and Barack Obama had 67.2 million viewers, making it second only to the Super Bowl, according to the New York Times.  

Just as importantly, televised debates help the public get to know the candidate. Political events put on by individual candidates such as speeches or rallies are often scripted and the public is aware of that. Debates, on the other hand, can go in almost any direction. Voters can see how well their candidates perform without a teleprompter. A candidate who comes out looking strong like Kennedy did would stand to gain voters and donors.  

The 2016 primaries have seen many changes in American politics. The rise of Trump as well as his radical policies have taken the Republican party by storm, while Bernie Sanders has also seen surprising amounts of success. Televised debates remain as important as ever. Rather than having been reduced to a form of meaningless entertainment, they are an important medium of political advertisement which lets politicians reach millions of viewers, and lets viewers see the politicians in an arena which has not been meticulously planned beforehand.