To Watch the Debate or Go for a Walk?

Alexis Tsipras, Greece's prime minister, speaks to supporters during a rally against accepting bailout conditions on Syntagma
Alexis Tsipras, Greece's prime minister, speaks to supporters during a rally against accepting bailout conditions on Syntagma Square in Athens, Greece, on Friday, July 3, 2015. Greece and the euro region dug into their positions before the country's referendum on Sunday as polls show the outcome is impossible to predict and what happens next even more uncertain. Photographer: Yannis Behrakis/POOL via Bloomberg

In the U.S. presidential elections of 1960, the winner received around 100,000 more votes than the runner-up. It was the smallest margin in history. At the same time, it was the first time in history for two nominees to face each other in a televised debate. Only four of them at that!

Seventy million people watched the first of these debates. What they saw was Nixon with no makeup on, who appeared to be exhausted and unshaven, up against a tan, healthy-looking and well-painted Kennedy. (His mother, as legend has it, called him immediately after the broadcast, concerned that he was sick.)

An urban legend was then born: that the young senator beat the experienced vice president, because he had won the debate. A poll taken at the time supported this urban legend; it showed that among those who had watched the showdown on television, 30 percent felt that Kennedy had won, while 29 percent thought Nixon came out on top, while 49 percent of those who listened to the debate on the radio said that Nixon was the winner, compared to 21 percent who preferred Kennedy.

kennedy nixon debate

So, the urban legend assumes that pre-election debates influence the elections, and that image edges out substance, sound bites overpower arguments, and the spectacle beats politics.

How much did President Bush's gaffe cost him when he faced Clinton in 1992, when the camera caught him as he glanced at his watch, giving the impression that he felt uncomfortable? And how about when, in a 1997 debate, the Canadian Prime Minister continued to answer a question, even as a reporter fainted and fell flat on the studio floor? Did that incident have any bearing on the elections? How much does reality fit in a debate?

The truth is: if Kennedy was deemed the winner of the first debate, the next three were won by Nixon. Yet he still lost the election. The truth is also that the difference, between television viewers and radio listeners, in their perceptions of who the winner was could have a simpler explanation. In 1960, 87 percent of American households owned televisions. Accordingly, most of those who caught the debate on the radio may very well have been poor farmers from the Deep South, who would not have voted, in any case, for a Catholic, wealthy candidate from snobbish Massachusetts.

What's certain is that the American political system was not thrilled by the experience. While Canada, in 1968, West Germany, in 1969 and France, in 1974, enthusiastically adopted the medium, American audiences had to wait 16 years to watch the next debate. It took place in 1976, between Carter and Ford. Ford had most likely won the first debate, which centered on domestic policy, but at the second one, which revolved around foreign policy, he committed one of the biggest gaffes in the short history of televised debates. ("There is no Soviet domination of Eastern Europe" he said. "And there will never be under a Ford presidency.") The very next day, he took a dive in the polls from which he didn't recover until the end.

carter ford debate

Since then, debates have become one of the staples of the electoral process in all democratic countries, with either presidential or parliamentary systems. Great Britain was the last to jump on the bandwagon: it resisted the practice until 2010! By now, there is a huge bibliography of theoretical analyses and research findings. The influence that debates have on the electorate, and their effects on political discourse has been thoroughly researched.

dukakis bush debate

There have been candidates who have been blessed with charisma, which has rendered the televised debate an easy arena for them, among them: Reagan, Clinton, and Obama. But all three won the debates prior to elections that they would have won anyway. And if there was an exception, in the case of Dukakis-Bush, where a poor answer by Dukakis to a question that came from a gotcha journalist damaged his campaign. Otherwise, would Dukakis have won the election? Probably not.

Debates usually strengthen views that already exist in the electorate, rather than overturning them. Changes in electoral tendencies after a debate are the exception, not the rule. In fact, in the case of Greece, there has never been an exception.

In 1960, when the first televised electoral debate between Kennedy and Nixon took place, Greece did not even have television yet. And when it did get television, it no longer had elections -- it had a dictatorship instead. And, finally, when we had both, democracy and television, the role of television in elections remained, for at least two decades, tangential at best.

The first to ask for a televised showdown with his opponent was Mitsotakis, during the 1985 elections. However, Papandreou refused, calling on old scores, from the the lost spring of 1964 and the defection of '65. In November 1989 (preceded by PASOK's defeat in the June elections and the formation of the Tzannetakis government) the tele-visually French-bred Ricardos Someritis, in his brief time at ERT, managed a hybrid mode of dialogue, where three political leaders, answered questions for the same panel of three reporters on three consecutive nights. It was not exactly a debate, but Someritis and those who took part in it were hoping that it would help break the ice. And break the ice it did. During the next election, which followed a few months later, Mitsotakis, Papandreou and Florakis sat together for a conversation on foreign policy at the Padeio, with Yannis Kapsis as moderator. Even that, however, was not a proper debate.

The first debate took place in September 1996, between Simitis and Evert, who did not have any unfinished business from the '60s. It was overly formal, and highly restrictive -- journalists were forced to direct the same question to both leaders, who were forbidden from speaking to each other.

Seven more debates followed, in differing formats, during the elections and Euro-elections in the following years, up until 2009. Only one though, that which brought Karamanlis and Papandreou head to head in September of 2009, under the moderation of Maria Houkli, resembled a true dialogue.

The rest of the debates had leaders who were protected by strict rules which prevented the unexpected. And there were even more reporters (since TV-channels demanded, foolishly, as a condition for them to televise the debate, that a representative of theirs would be present.) The result was bland and uninviting, even insufferable.

And then, we discovered that there is something even worse than a badly organised debate: a completely absent one.

With the advent of the referendum, debates were abolished. As relations between political parties completely crossed the line of common decency and as, at the same time, Antonis Samaras faced the television cameras with inexplicable insecurity, the four elections of the referendum years (three national showdowns and one Euro-election round) were debate-less.

Now we witness the return of the medium in Greece, after six whole years. Will it influence something this time? It would be difficult, but it is not impossible. While voters remain reluctant and morose, and political leaders fail, it may play a role.

So, get on your marks. Watch it. Prepare yourself by looking at the basic positions of the candidates before you watch the debate. Do not watch it on your own. Watch with company and converse during it. Have a pen and paper next to you and make note of things you want to think about or discuss further. And do not rush to decide on a winner and loser. Thing are, usually, more complicated than they may look at first...

This post first appeared on HuffPost Greece and was translated into English