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Presidential debates in comparative perspective

- April 16, 2010

So the United Kingdom had its first of three ‘presidential’ debates[1] between the three main party leaders yesterday evening. Gideon Rachman suggests that it gave a “polling bump to the Liberal Democrats”:http://blogs.ft.com/rachmanblog/2010/04/cleggs-night-britain-heads-for-a-hung-parliament/, whose leader, Nick Clegg did “extremely well”:http://www.ft.com/cms/s/0/fe59e680-48cb-11df-8af4-00144feab49a,dwp_uuid=24f60f14-10b2-11df-975e-00144feab49a.html.[2] If the debate has significant long term consequences for public opinion, as Rachman argues (perhaps from hope as much as rigorous analysis) then this would diverge from the findings of US political scientists, who argue that the effects of presidential debates on public opinion are moderate at best. Such divergence might be a bit embarrassing for me – I made a strong version of the ‘they don’t matter’ argument to a bunch of politically interested Brits at dinner a couple of weeks ago. But it would be intellectually pretty interesting. If these debates have no very great impact in the US, but do measurably affect politics in the UK, this might provide some interesting comparative insights into the underlying mechanisms at work here.

One plausible story might go as follows. The US has a strong two party system, in which third parties usually only emerge temporarily, to subside, or, in very rare instances, to successfully challenge one of the two major incumbents in a new version of the old game. The UK, which perhaps _should_ be a two party system under Duverger’s Law is in fact a two-and-a-half party system, in which the Liberal Democrats stay in the game – but are not strong enough to challenge either Labour or the Conservatives. This is in large part because the incentives towards strategic voting incline voters in many constituencies, who are ideologically closer to the Liberal Democrats to vote either for the Conservatives or Labour rather than to waste their vote on a no-hoper party. Such expectations can of course become self-fulfilling – but can also be fragile under certain circumstances.

In particular, one might surmise that the “Clegg effect” could have consequences in situations of this kind. The impression that the leader did well in the debates may reassure potential Liberal Democrat voters that others too are likely to vote for the Liberal Democratic candidate, and that their own vote (if they cast it for the Liberal Democrats) will not necessarily be wasted. This can create an alternative set of self-fulfilling expectations under which many more people vote for the Liberal Democrats than otherwise would have done so. Of course, this is all entirely speculative – and even if it were to work out, there would be no very sweeping results (a first past the post system is still going to work against smaller parties without a strong regional base). But it could have real consequences on the margins, and is one plausible way in which ‘presidential’ debates could have greater consequence in non-US systems than in the system that gave birth to them.

fn1. This “FT article”:http://www.ft.com/cms/s/0/44862378-41e5-11df-865a-00144feabdc0.html is an excellent primer on how UK politicians came to agree to these debates.

fn2. I once interviewed Clegg, on the exciting topic of telecommunications ‘last mile’ regulation, when he was a lowly MEP. He struck me as extremely sharp, albeit somewhat technocratic (in fairness to him, local loop unbundling is not a topic that lends itself to politically punchy dialogue).