US presidential debates: Should Filipinos care?

Willard Cheng, ABS-CBN News

Posted at Sep 29 2020 11:14 PM

Democratic US presidential nominee and former Vice President Joe Biden delivers remarks about his plans to develop and distribute a safe coronavirus disease (COVID-19) vaccine if elected president, during a campaign statement after being briefed by public health experts in Wilmington, Delaware, US, Sept. 16, 2020. Jonathan Ernst, Reuters

MANILA - US President Donald Trump and Democratic challenger Joe Biden are not expected to shake hands when they face off on Wednesday for the first US presidential debate. 

There will be fewer audience too inside the debate venue in Cleveland, Ohio, as the COVID-19 pandemic has forced debate organizers to implement health and safety restrictions.

But one thing is sure: millions of Americans are expected to watch from their homes as many still consider presidential debates as “appointment viewing.”

US presidential debates have been branded as the “Superbowl” of American politics as they still generate the largest viewing audience of any single televised campaign event similar to the highly anticipated annual football championship, according to Pew Research Center.

Cable news channels are also expected to carry the debates live, which can also be viewed via livestream online. 

But should Filipinos care?

US-based presidential debates expert and communication professor Dr. Mitchell McKinney pointed out that the little attention that US presidential debates devote to foreign policy and the US' role in the world hopes debates can be improved to discuss international affairs.

“Unfortunately we may lack the… necessary discussion in these debates at times in terms of the US’ role internationally and our focus abroad. That may be given short shrift but I think there’s great interest in the role of the US President and the administration and what this might mean for countries around the world. I think that’s an area that we could improve in terms of our debate dialogue and focus more attention,” McKinney said in a briefing with selected journalists participating in the virtual reporting tour on the US Elections organized by the US Department of State’s Foreign Press Centers.

“Unfortunately, as you… very well know, US citizens, even our leaders, we tend to ignore or perhaps not aware of issues around the world that we should be until something becomes a crisis and then we’re oftentimes like, ‘My goodness, you know, why didn’t we know this? Why were we not aware? Why didn’t our leaders not discuss and educate voters?’ I’m hopeful that perhaps we will hear more appropriate discussion in these debates in terms of the role of US abroad and internationally.”

McKinney has been studying debates since the late 1980s and advised the US Commission on Presidential Debates where his work was instrumental in developing the presidential “town hall” debate format.

In 2002, he advised the presidential debate commission of South Korea as Seoul officials planned their televised presidential debates.

McKinney recalled that there were 2 or 3 series of previous US presidential debates that had full debates devoted to either domestic or international issues and there had been discussion to bring such format back.

“Certainly in a topic so important in terms of our US’ role in the world, international relations, peace, and other issues, in terms of conflict, and military, many have argued that that can fill certainly… a debate,” McKinney said.

US-CHINA TIES

Philippine-based international studies professor Dr. Rommel Banlaoi said a debate on US policy toward Asia will have “great importance on the Philippines.” 

This includes how the US deals with China’s rising power, US alliances in Asia, and regional flashpoints in the South China Sea, the Taiwan straits, and the Korean peninsula. 

“Trump’s hawkish policy on China is putting pressure on the Philippines to take sides. Biden’s moderate stand on China will allow more room for the Philippines to deal with both powers in more pragmatic terms,” said Banlaoi, who as president of the Philippine Association for Chinese Studies (PACS) conducted a talk recently on the political and security implications of the US elections for the Philippines. 

“US leadership and US-China relations will also become major foreign policy issues for our own elections in 2022,” Banlaoi said.

Trump and Biden have no idea what questions will be asked in the debates. McKinney said moderators have “great latitude” in coming up with which questions to ask and were therefore given “great power” on how the debates were executed.

Fox News anchor Chris Wallace, who has been chosen to moderate the first 2020 presidential debate, has announced his selection of the topics for the Sept. 29 debate: The Trump and Biden records, Supreme Court, COVID-19, economy, race and violence in cities, and integrity of the election.

DO DEBATES INFLUENCE US VOTERS?

McKinney said US voters considered the presidential debates as the “focal point” of a long campaign as the only moment where they could compare the candidates, side-by-side, under equal conditions.

With the message articulated directly by candidates in a situation that candidates do not control, the “real” or “authentic” candidate emerges, making debates as “the most credible and useful of all forms of campaign communication.”

Do debates influence the outcome of the elections?

McKinney said there was “little change” in voting intentions recorded following exposure to debates, saying that as high as 90 to 95 percent of debate viewers record no change in candidate choice after watching the debates. 

But more than half (3 to 4 percent) of the approximately 5 percent who come to the debate undecided will report a candidate preference after debate viewing. Debate viewers, he added, are more likely to vote.

McKinney said a close race and an enough number of undecided or persuadable voters “magnify the importance of debates.” He said evidence had suggested that debates had an influence in the outcome of elections in 1960 (Kennedy vs Nixon), 1976 (Carter vs Ford), 1980 (Carter vs Reagan), 1992 (Clinton vs Bush), and 2000 (Gore vs. Bush).