The Significance of Leaders’ Debates in Shaping Political Outcomes

Following Tuesday’s leaders’ debate, Prime Minister Rishi Sunak was heralded as the victor by the nation’s newspapers, stirring bold headlines such as ‘Rishi comes out swinging.’ The snap YouGov poll found only a marginal win for the Prime Minister at 51%, compared to Sir Keir Starmer’s 49% but Sunak seemed to exceed many expectations.

Sunak vs Starmer: The Battle of Personalities

For a long time, Rishi Sunak enjoyed greater personal popularity compared to his party. It’s no secret that a candidate who comes across prepared and confident in debate settings translates into positive media coverage, giving Sunak an edge in high stakes moments where he is face-to-face with the electorate. This raises the question of whether debates, which spotlight individual leaders rather than their parties, naturally play into Sunak’s strengths compared to Starmer’s.

The ability to project certain character traits such as trust, capability, and integrity to the public do make a significant impact on voter decisions.

Nick Clegg’s performance in the first-ever televised leaders’ debate, which led to what is known as ‘Cleggmania’, clearly illustrated how a relatable and honest approach resonates with voters. Moving into this election, Starmer is benefitting, albeit to a lesser extent, from a perception that he is more in touch with ordinary people, more likeable, and more trustworthy and capable than Sunak.

Despite his lead in the polls, Starmer faces the challenge of being less popular than previous election winning party leaders. Theresa May’s decline in popularity following poor media performances and the infamous ‘dementia tax’ in the 2017 election highlights how quickly the tide can change.

Appearance and physical presence also play an interesting role in leaders’ debates. Historically, taller candidates have had an advantage in US elections. The image of being physically formidable as a leader, especially in a time of domestic and global threats, in these instances can benefit party leaders and influence voter’s perceptions of a candidate’s suitability.

Along with gaining trust and confidence from the public, and physically ‘fitting the part’, politicians must also navigate how to achieve, and adjust, when necessary, the specific narrative that will grasp the electorate. To be successful in an upcoming election where foreign policy is at the centre, a leader must be able to mitigate voter apathy and get the public to want to care about intimidating and overwhelming subjects, such as ‘national defence and security’ and ‘nuclear deterrence.’

Connecting with voters on a personal level and making these topics digestible for the everyday Briton in this election is key for a party to be successful.

Why Broadcast Debates?

Debates reach a broad audience, with research showing that more than half of voters view leaders’ debates as crucial in making their decision. The visual and rhetorical prowess displayed during these debates can create lasting impressions, influencing voter sentiment.

Televised debates, complemented by social media snippets, help engage younger voters who might not follow traditional news sources. These platforms can amplify the reach of key debate moments, influencing first-time voters and turning passive voters into active participants.

Tuesday’s debate garnered approximately 4.8 million views, about 2 million less than the 2019 debate. While it still attracted more views than the Love Island premiere, this trend underscores that despite broadcast media remaining a key tool in engaging a nation, alternative platforms will become increasingly important in elections to come.

One Piece of the Puzzle

Evidence suggests televised debates undoubtedly sway public opinion and shift the momentum of elections, but their impact is just one facet of the political process. Effective communication needs to be backed by a coherent policy platform that aligns with the electorate’s needs and aspirations.

For many people, it’s not just what leaders say, but how convincingly they say it that truly matters. While TV debates serve as pivotal moments in the electoral calendar, they must be viewed within the broader context of a candidate’s overall campaign strategy, emphasising both policy substance and personal appeal.


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