Reflections from a British exchange student on the final presidential debate

The style and format of the American debate is completely foreign to U.K exchange students.  (Bill B/Flickr Creative Commons) 

The style and format of the American debate is completely foreign to U.K exchange students.  (Bill B/Flickr Creative Commons) 

Televised presidential debates have been a defining feature of the presidential campaign since the first televised one between Kennedy and Nixon. While Wednesday night’s debate did not fundamentally change anything about this election, it is still an interesting snapshot of the campaigns so far.

Initially, Trump came across as more measured; he wasn’t interrupting Hillary or launching into ad hominem attacks. But as the issue of immigration was raised, it was as if a switch flipped for Trump and he settled in to his familiar routine of personal attacks against Hillary, culminating in calling her “such a nasty woman.”  Clinton put up her usual robust performance, managing to sidestep questions about the WikiLeaks revelations, Bill Clinton’s sexual misconduct and, of course, her emails. Despite Hillary regularly using her favorite Michelle Obama quotation, “when they go low, you go high,” there was a fair amount of “going low” on her behalf as well as on Trump’s. Both candidates resorted to calling each other by their first names, a tactic started by Hillary in the first presidential debate, and insulting each other’s characters. But in this final debate, there was an element of Hillary playing Trump at his own game. She interrupted him, she was condescending towards him and personally attacked him, but still managed to appear unflustered and measured.

As a student studying abroad from the U.K, presidential debates are not a part of our election history. The very first televised general election debate was introduced in 2010.  Although we have only had two televised general election debates and the 2016 presidential campaigns are certainly not a typical marker of American elections, there are still some interesting comparisons to be drawn between the two nations.

Firstly, in U.K. debates at least three candidates are included, as the prime minister is chosen from the largest party in the House of Commons, in which there are more than two parties represented. In 2010, the British Labour, Conservative and Liberal Democrat party leaders contested the televised debate. In 2015, membership was expanded to include UKIP, the Greens, the Scottish Nationalists and Plaid Cymru (The Party of Wales).

The inclusion of more than two parties, gives issues a less black-and-white appearance than in the U.S. presidential debates. Engaging with more than one opposing viewpoint also allows the audience to situate the candidates on a spectrum of right to left, rather than simply having one candidate representing each half of the electorate, within which there are a plurality of views.  

The character comparisons I would draw between the final presidential debate and the U.K General Election debate in 2015 would firstly be between Hillary Clinton and Nick Clegg. Nick Clegg was the leader of Liberal Democrat party, who came in to the debate as the Deputy Prime Minister in a Conservative-Liberal Democrat coalition. This therefore placed him in an awkward position, as he had to critique the incumbent government, of which he was a card-carrying member. Hillary faced a similar issue with this, as she served as Secretary of State as is keen to play up her ties with Obama, as well as expounding her own personal policy visions. This situation should give Trump the upper hand and allow him to make the most of his “outsider” status. But instead Trump is so focused on destroying Hillary’s character, he fails to give policy issues the time and attention they require in these debates. In the 2015 General Election debate, Nigel Farage (the leader of UKIP) managed to play this hand better. He similarly positioned himself as an outsider and the champion of Average Joe. But unlike Trump, he focused his entire debate performance on engaging directly with policy issues and relating every one back to failures of the European Union, rather than ad hominem attacks.

The major difference between these two debates is that a seven-way debate (as we saw in the U.K. last year) does not allow for time to discuss scandals and conspiracies. But in a head-to-head two-way debate, scandal can quickly become the most explosive issue. Trump’s declaration that he would “keep us in suspense” as to whether he would accept the result of the election serves to illustrate the drama and showmanship which comes because of a two-way presidential debate, even in this most atypical of years.


Laura Nash is a campus correspondent for The Daily Campus. She can be reached via email at laura.nash@uconn.edu.