Image and expectations are critical in the televised presidential debates

The first televised US presidential debate was held in 1960 between vice president Nixon and senator Kennedy. Despite the shortcomings of the black & white broadcast, Kennedy came across as presidential, handsome, knowledgeable and decisive on the tungsten tube television and irregardless of Nixon’s defined debating ability the screen never treated him well as he always came across as nervous and cagey. The debate formats varied from what they are today in that they allowed for long stretches of time for each candidate to make his opening statements and respond in accordance to the traditional intellectual live debate formats, unlike today when shorter durations of time are allowed in order to match TV viewing preferences.

Then and now it takes a tremendous amount of preparation to portray a suitable presidential image in contrast with the opponents in the highly competitive event that has become one of the most watched pieces of TV content in the US. It therefore forms a critical element in the contest for the presidency. In a previous article I wrote about 3 factors to consider when advancing in your career and in business. They are competence, relationships and image, of which image takes up the largest proportion and this is so in elective politics as well.

So far, former secretary of state Hillary Clinton has spent $159.7 million on her presidential campaign ads compared to businessman Donald Trump who has spent $18.7 million. Trump has spent less than Hillary because of his ability to dominate the news cycle which amounts to free publicity. This stems from his extensive experience in producing highly rated TV content and those skills have been valuable to his campaign throughout the election season.

In the US the total advertising spend is boosted during election seasons due to all the ads put out by politicians vying for office, but in Kenya we tend to see stagnation of advertising despite the portion that the local political campaigns add to the pool. This is because regular advertisers reduce their ad spend during the period in what has become a cautions approach to business due to an atmosphere of uncertainty. We all look forward to the day when business is not be affected in the campaign season and that we can proceed with our activities with confidence that peace will prevail.

When the Kenyan media houses came together in the last elections to hold the first presidential debate the ratings shot through the roof and it gave every presidential candidate an equal platform, even those who had insignificant points in the opinion polls. The debate was meant to last 2 hours but over run by an hour as the moderators tried to get in all the questions and responses from the 8 candidates. To manage the process better it would have helped to introduce a cut off mechanism to reduce the number debaters, such as using their ratings in the opinion polls, thereby improving the quality of the show.

There are a number of techniques that presidential candidates use to enhance their performance at the debates and one of the more obscure ones is to lower the expectations of the candidates performance at the debate in the weeks leading up to it. This works when a candidates ability to debate well is in doubt, brought about by media commentary and general conversations. These ideas are planted by the candidates teams through reporters, political influencers and social media. So when the candidate turns up to the debate on time he would have literally done more than anyone anticipated and be seen favourably for it.

Ahead of the second presidential debate in the run up to the 2013 elections, Uhuru’s team convinced the entire nation that he would not attend the second debate because he believed that spending more time on the campaign trail would yield better results than debating with his opponents on TV. There were mixed feeling from his supporters and opponents alike, and then all he had to do was to turn up for the debate, and that in itself gave him a head-start as the show began.

In Hillary’s case, the issue about her health has played out in the media for about a month and it is naturally expected to affect her debate performance. This has also been helped by her opponents rhetoric on the subject and I suspect that because of this, all she has to do is to make a decent presentation at the debate tonight to win it. It is expected that 100 million viewers will watch the event and that it will have a big impact on either candidates run depending on the outcome.


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