Style vs. Substance: How Much Weight Should Voters Really Place on Debates?

Reflecting upon the shortcomings of presidential debates

Published 16 days ago in North America and Politics

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ABC News

On Thursday, September 12th, 14 million viewers tuned in to the third Democratic debate. Over the course of the 2020 primary election cycle, there will be a total of 12 debates for the Democratic candidates, as determined by the Democratic National Committee (DNC). After each debate, the mainstream news cycle is flooded with highlight reels, sound bites, and “winners” and “losers” lists of the night. Even the most politically apathetic people are typically exposed to these presidential debates in some form, but they may not be the best avenue to aid voters in making their ultimate decision about the contenders.

This reality begs the question: are debates truly indicative of a candidate’s ability to fulfill the massive responsibilities of the presidency? 

To examine this question, it is first important to understand how it is decided which candidates will even make it to the debate stage. The DNC is in charge of setting the qualification standards for the debates based on fundraising and polling numbers, with varying thresholds for each debate. In order to qualify for the recent September debate, for example, candidates needed to reach 2% in four polls and receive funds from 130,000 unique donors. With these requirements, some prominent candidates, including Hawaii Representative Tulsi Gabbard and Montana Governor Steve Bollock, were excluded from the debates. Some candidates, such as New York Senator Kirsten Gilibrand, dropped out of the race after failing to qualify.

Many political pundits, and even political candidates, have been questioning the merits of such a limiting system so early in the primary cycle. Steve Bollock has been particularly vocal about the shortcomings of the debate selection process, criticizing the DNC for turning the primaries into “The Hunger Games.” Additionally, he claims that the qualification standards serve to disproportionately benefit wealthy candidates who can pour millions of dollars into propping up their own campaigns. Further research indicates that these qualification standards are not an accurate measure of viability and electability, as the only thing polling truly measures this far from the election is name recognition. While the large candidate pool necessitated the DNC to set some standard for the debates, the markers that the organization is setting for success may end up harming the party in the long run. 

Beyond the “who” of the debates, the “what” of the debates may also not be the best way for voters to glean a candidate’s competence for the presidency. Going into the debates, campaign strategies are focused on delivering punchy one-liners and meme-worthy moments, rather than conveying their full issue positions. This can leave uninformed voters with the propensity to vote for the candidate that they found the most “likable,” but not necessarily the candidate most fit for the job. For example, Kamala Harris’s “break-out” moment in the first Democratic debate arose when she confronted Former Vice President Joe Biden on his record on busing. She recounted the story of a schoolgirl in California who was a part of the second class of integrated schools in her district, finishing the story with “And that little girl was me.” This line garnered a large round of applause from the audience, and her campaign team immediately began selling t-shirts with this slogan. While this was no doubt a powerful moment, it was likely rehearsed and did not shed light on how Senator Harris would address race relations in our country today. 

Moreover, the allotted three-hours for the debates are not enough time to properly address all the issues that voters care about. As such, debates are often noted to have “agenda setting power,” meaning that the topics selectively covered in debates become the focal point issues of the election, leaving others to be minimized or pushed aside completely. While the first three Democratic debates have extensively covered healthcare policy, many important topics have received little to no attention. For example, in the most recent debate, not a single question was asked about reproductive rights. There has been a recent push to incorporate more voter-generated questions into the debates, but ultimately, the news outlets and moderators still have full control over which topics are touched upon the most. This lack of comprehensive policy discussion does a disservice to the American people watching in hopes of better understanding their choices for the nation’s highest office. 

Be it the selective qualification process, the structure and questions, or the post-debate news coverage, it is undeniable that the presidential debate system is deeply flawed and not conducive to gauging whether a candidate would be suited for the job. Still, however, these debates have the power to influence voters in this country, especially those that are not otherwise politically active. Perhaps it is time for a serious reflection about the primary election process and how the American people can cast more informed votes.

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