Do debates between candidates actually matter?

·Senior Editor
·6 min read

“The 360” shows you diverse perspectives on the day’s top stories and debates.

What’s happening

For much of modern American history, debates have been seen as a more or less essential part of any major political campaign. As much as candidates might squabble over the details ahead of time or claim they were mistreated after the fact, it was broadly assumed that they would at some point — or, frequently, more than once — meet in a formal face-off in front of the voters.

But that tradition has eroded over recent election cycles to the point where it’s become a genuine question whether some of the most important races in this year’s midterms might feature any debates at all. In state after state, candidates have been squabbling over the timing, circumstances and number of debates.

The debate over debates has been a central theme in Senate races in two of the most closely watched current contests. In Pennsylvania, Republican Senate candidate Mehmet Oz has repeatedly accused his Democratic opponent, John Fetterman, who suffered a stroke in May, of trying to avoid debates. A similar dynamic is happening in Georgia, but with the party affiliations reversed. Incumbent Democratic Sen. Raphael Warnock had called out GOP challenger Herschel Walker for “dodging” several debate opportunities before the two campaigns came to an agreement on a single date next month. Both Fetterman and Walker eventually agreed to debate at least once.

The debate issue has emerged in a number of other races across the country. In Missouri, the Republican Senate candidate was a no-show at a candidate forum last week. It’s still unclear whether there will be any debates in the race for Pennsylvania governor. GOP candidate Doug Mastriano, who was at the Capitol during the Jan. 6 assault, has refused to participate in a traditional debate with an independent moderator. One key contest that definitely won’t include a debate is for governor of Arizona. Democrat Katie Hobbs has said she won’t debate “conspiracy theorist” Kari Lake, a Republican who has enthusiastically endorsed former President Trump’s lies about the 2020 presidential election.

Why there’s controversy

There are a number of theories for why candidates have become increasingly skeptical of debates, including a belief that the potential risks of gaffes greatly outweigh the rewards of a strong performance and the lack of perceived consequences for skipping them. Some also point to the GOP’s general rejection of the mainstream media, which typically provides a platform for political debates.

There’s also disagreement over whether this trend really matters. Debate advocates say the events offer a critical opportunity for voters to learn about the candidates and their policy positions outside of hyper-calculated campaign ads and stump speeches. They say debates can serve as a proving ground for those who voters may have questions about the aspiring politicians’ fitness for office. Many also worry that the decline in debates is a troubling symptom of a much broader shift in which lawmakers increasingly feel they don’t have to be accountable to the people they represent.

But others make the case that it doesn’t really matter whether candidates debate in person. They point to a significant body of research that suggests debate performance has little to no effect on the results of even close races. Some also argue that skill at debating is in no way representative of how someone will perform in public office.

What’s next

Debates have been scheduled in many of the high-profile Senate races across the country, all of them set to be held in October. It remains to be seen whether those events actually take place and whether they’ll play any role in deciding which party controls Congress for the next two years.

Perspectives

Healthy debates make a healthy democracy

“The value of debating in a democracy shouldn’t be understated. It’s a proven part of the process that helps voters become informed and make decisions on who is best to represent them in government. Voters deserve to know where candidates stand on certain issues, and debates and candidate forums are one of the best tools we have.” — Geoff Foster, executive director of Common Cause Massachusetts, to WGBH

Debates aren’t as enlightening for voters as many seem to think

“There’s not a lot of evidence we learn that much from debates in terms of policy content because the people who tend to watch debates are those who know a lot about the candidate and are tuning in to see their candidate win the same way you watch a sports game.” — Megan Goldberg, political scientist, to KCRG

Voters deserve a chance to see candidates as they really are

“The knock on debates is no one cares about them except the press. That they’re purely platforms for media outlets and media members. But they are more than that. They can show a candidate’s demeanor and temperament. How a candidate responds when challenged. They give voters the chance to hear candidate views. In their own words. In real time. Not through handlers. Not with press or pundit interruptions.” — John Baer, Penn Live

Good debaters don’t necessarily make good leaders

“There is campaigning, and there is governing. Two different things. … Campaign choices make a big difference, and the public cannot be expected to follow issues as closely as political professionals. And yet … in the end, it is governing that really matters.” — Nelson Morgan, Arizona Republic

Most debates are unimportant, but they can occasionally be decisive in close races

“General-election debates are usually dry affairs for which the competing camps have spent weeks preparing each candidate on how to avoid walking into political traps and rehearsing a few zingers that they hope the media will focus on in their post-mortem stories. But in very close races, small mistakes can prove decisive, or at least knock a campaign in the wrong direction for a few days.” — Paul Kane, Washington Post

Without real punishment for skipping them, a lot of candidates will see debates as unnecessary

“I like debates. I think candidates should do them & they risk bad press by not doing them. But from a campaign's perspective: 1. Debate prep takes a LOT of time 2. On an event with your opponent that rarely moves the needle 3. unless you screw up. So … if it's the case that you can skip debating, and the bad press doesn't matter because voters don't really care, then campaigns have every reason to skip them and spend more time on their own campaign activities.” — Bill Scher, political analyst

The debate over debates allows candidates to distract from issues that really matter

“The debates themselves are shaping up to be major campaign issues. It’s tedious, and it does not serve the voters.” — Editorial, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

The decline of debates is a sign of how badly partisanship has splintered the country

“I don’t know how much utility they have … on the other hand, I do think it’s just a sad symptom of where we are in terms of polarization and candidates willingness … to even be in the same space with each other and talk about the same issues. It feels a little depressing to me.” — Amelia Thomson-Deveaux, FiveThirtyEight

Debates could play an important role in helping restore civility to U.S. politics

“I am hopeful we can get back to the ideal of debate, which allows citizens to be informed on the issues they need to confront. We are in a serious crisis of democracy, and we need to be able to figure out how to disagree without moving into the language of civil war.” — Tom Hollihan, political communication researcher, to U.S. News & World Report

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