US News How general election TV debates actually influence who people vote for, according to experts
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Jeremy Corbyn and Boris Johnson's televised debate will be the first to air ahead of the snap election next month, and marks the first time just two leaders have gone up against each other in front of viewers in this way.
The hour-long head-to-head is hosted by Julie Etchingham, who also led the Conservative leadership debates with Mr Johnson and Jeremy Hunt in July.
Leadership debate shows offer the public a chance to hear the candidates out before a vote, but critics have questioned the use of such programming since it began in 2010, despite it being arguably more influential at the time. Theresa May famously refused to take part in any televised debates in the 2017 election, and both the Lib Dems' Jo Swinson and the SNP's Nicola Sturgeon have been excluded from leadership debates on both ITV and the BBC leadership debates, despite them taking legal action in an attempt to reverse the decision.
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So how influencial are leadership debates on how people vote?
Do people watch the debates?
The first televised general election leaders debate between Gordon Brown (R) of the Labour Party, David Cameron (C) of the Conservative Party and Nick Clegg (L) of the Liberal Democrat Party in 2010 (Photo: Getty)
The UK's first televised election debate was in 2010 with Gordon Brown, Nick Clegg and David Cameron, which recorded an audience of. It is thought to be the most influential debtate to date as viewing figures for these programmes have since dropped to as low as three million.
Dr Nicholas Allen, Reader of Politics at Royal Holloway University London, said this drop in interest is down to the novelty of the debates wearing off, adding that the 2010 ones "attracted disproportional influence". As a result, "viewer figures are unlikely to be that great" for the televised debates this year, he said.
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Dr Allen, who is also a member of the Democracy and Elections Centre, told i: "The first UK debates were relatively impactful on the course of the campaign because of their novelty and format. They attracted disproportionate influence because they were the first debates.
"It was also in the broadcasters’ interests to promote them: the BBC, Sky and ITN collaborated on producing them, and they had an incentive to frame the campaign as a series of debates."
Why do people watch leadership debates?
(L-R) Labour leader Ed Miliband, Plaid Cymru leader Leanne Wood, Green Party Leader Natalie Bennett, SNP leader Nicola Sturgeon and UKIP leader Nigel Farage take part in the Live BBC Election Debate 2015 (Photo: Getty)
This reduction in interest could see the shows' reach among a wider demographic of people fall for two reasons. Firstly, the audience figures have dropped dramatically over the past nine years, and secondly those tuning in are more likely to be politically engaged already. And if people have a preconception that televised election debates are not very interesting, less politically active people are likely to tune in - though people who are unsure of their political beliefs who do watch them can be open to being converted.
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Many wh do tune in are likely to have relatively fixed political views and may be watching to see their chosen leader has "win" the debate, as opposed to genuine interest in what each party has to offer, said Pete Dorey, Professor of British Politics at Cardiff University.
"Someone who supports Boris Johnson might watch in the hope that he wipes the floor with Jeremy Corbyn and people who like Mr Corbyn might do the opposite," he told i. "I suspect people who watch tonight will have already made their mind up and those who aren't that interested probably won't watch."
Saying this, Steven Fielding, Professor of Politics at the University of Nottingham, pointed out that ITV's viewership is generally more working class than that of Channel 4 or Sky, indicating a chance that tonight's head-to-head could draw in a more diverse demographic of people than for the other channels.
He also argued that people often tuning in in the hope of something going wrong.
"TV debates are a bit like Formula One," he told i "They're boring until someone has a car crash, so now everyone is waiting for that car crash but there usually there isn't one a the people participating are so well prepared that they just avoid all mistakes."
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Do debates influence election results?
After his appearance on the 2010 televised debate, Nick Clegg experienced 'Cleggmania' (Photo: Getty)
Poll expert Sir John Curtice said in the past that at one point, televised debates were shown to have huge impact on how the public felt. He pointed out that after the first one was held in 2010, Nick Clegg's performance was widely commended and resulted in a surge in popularity in the polls.
Mr Clegg's inclusion alongside the two biggest parties catapulted his policies and the Lib Dems into the public eye as a credible contender for the country's leading party. His impressive performance meant the sudden "Cleggmania" was undoubtedly a response to the television debate, Dr Allen said.
But Steven Fielding, Professor of Politics at the University of Nottingham, said "Cleggmania" didn't last long after the first debate, and the Lib Dems actually lost seats in the election. He argued that because of Mr Clegg's sudden popularity after the first debate, Mr Cameron and Mr Brown ensured for the next round of debates they would tackle him in a much more effective way.
Despite this being the most notable example of a televised debate translating into poll popularity, it had little influence on the election results itself. As a result, "the effect of them might be overstated" Prof. Fielding told i. "It doesn't really translate into votes in the end."
How you rated Jeremy Corbyn and Boris Johnson in the ITV General Election leaders debate
It was their first head to head of the election campaign 2019The pair have clashed in the Commons since Mr Johnson took over as Prime Minister, but this time, it was on a prime time slot on ITV .
And after 2010, the election debates appear to have had a dwindling impact. Dr Allen said the 2015 debates, "which were split across a forgettable 7-way leaders debate and 5-way opposition leaders debate, were instantly forgettable".
In addition, because Mr May did not participate in the 2017 debates, this gave the public the impression she "flounced out", reinforcing the public's already-held perception of a weak leadership, he explained.
Johnson v Corbyn
Prof. Fielding pointed out that the idea of who has "won" a debate has often been used by either side very optimistically. Often the key with this is their team managing public expectations to then impress them on television. Since the public know both Mr Johnson and Mr Corbyn fairly well and know their interview styles are often difficult, Prof. Fielding argued the public have very low expectations of both figures.
"We've seen Mr Johnson go on verbal journeys and become speechless sometimes when asked about his family and being relatable - he just goes silent and can't answer the question.
"But then again expectations are low for Mr Corbyn," he added. "I think if either of them strings together a sentence that is fairly plausible both sides will claim their guy has won it."
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