Candidate debates have a long and cherished history in American politics, beginning with the celebrated Lincoln-Douglas U.S. Senate debates in 1858. But debates have fallen on hard times recently. Donald Trump came close to skipping the 2016 debates and Republicans have threatened to do the same in 2020. In an unprecedented move, two universities scheduled to hold presidential debates this fall bowed out due to COVID-19.
And then there was the debate Tuesday night. Pundits called it a “dumpster fire,” a “train wreck” and “the worst presidential debate.” If this is the taste of debates for the future, people well may wonder whether they are worth having. Some have suggested the fall presidential debates be scrapped altogether.
Yet, debates serve as an important role today as they in 1858. One important role is to bring Americans together as voters. Debates unite Americans when they join together as a huge television audience to watch the candidates articulate their views in front of the nation. That unifying role is not insignificant in an era of divisiveness.
Another cardinal role of debates is voter learning. Academic studies consistently have found that candidate debates increase voter knowledge of the issues, as well as candidate positions on those issues. Regardless of educational level, voters glean information from debates they don’t get from other media sources, such as news stories or advertising.
That’s why so many Americans watch. The 2016 Presidential Debate Commission debates set records for the most-watched debates in history. For several decades now, approximately 60-80 million Americans tune in to each of these debates during the fall general election campaign. They tune in because they know the debates are an easy way for them to gain information about the candidates and the issues.
Most voters don’t have the time and inclination to follow a campaign day in and day out. And even if they did, soundbites and horse race coverage do not leave them very informed. Debates offer that opportunity. Debates connect candidates to voters in a way that does not happen through media coverage or candidate advertising.
At the same time, we acknowledge that debates today have their problems. This is true not only at the presidential level, but also at statewide and local levels. Debates can be done badly. There can be too many candidates on the stage at one time. The presidential primary debates in recent years are prime examples. Over a two-hour debate, few candidates were given enough time to articulate their views on issues.
Another problem is the presence of a poor moderator. Candidates often give vague answers. A good moderator asks follow up questions and probes the candidates to move beyond the pat responses. Without an effective moderator, debates can devolve into a repetition of canned answers.
Yet another flaw is when the questions themselves lack relevance to voters. When moderators or press panels ask “inside baseball” questions rather than those related to the problems of Americans, the debate becomes a “gotcha” experience and sours candidates on future participation. A better format is when ordinary voters get to ask questions (either in person or virtually) and then an astute moderator follows up to pin down the candidate if he or she gives a canned reply.
The solution to poor debates is not scrapping debates altogether. Rather, we need to improve them. And that is exactly what we are doing.
We have formed the State Debate Coalition with the goal of improving debates. We are doing that by establishing independent, nonpartisan debate commissions in every state. These commissions will have the responsibility to organize, produce, and host professionally produced candidate and issue debates at the state level during election years. State debate commissions are being organized by a coalition of media representatives, academics, community leaders and politicians who want to offer a nonpartisan event that partisan groups don’t dominate and candidates cannot avoid. Our debates feature effective moderators who hold candidates accountable while offering them an opportunity express their views to voters. Already, four state debate commissions have been created in Indiana, Utah, Washington and Ohio. More are underway.
At a time of increased partisan polarization, government gridlock, heightened distrust of people who think differently or belong to an opposing party, the answer is not to eliminate events that transcend those polarizing trends. Rather, it is to expand their presence across the nation. Voters need an opportunity to compare candidates side-by-side as they explain their vision for the future and debate critical policy issues that shape people’s lives. Debates matter to voters. Let’s improve them so they become even better.
Richard Davis, Elizabeth Bennion and Jill Zimon are directors of the State Debate Coalition. For more information about the State Debate Coalition, go to statedebatecoalition.org.