Political Debate

Posted on October 16, 2010 by


Debates are an incredibly interesting and satisfying part of the political process. You get to see the moderators struggle to keep the candidates on topic, within time constraints, and attempt to get answers to the questions actually asked from candidates who’d prefer to speak about something else without regard for the original inquiry.  The candidates attempt to maintain their composure while under pressure, stick to their talking points and strategy, all while taking jabs at their opponent.  The spectators either watch with hope for a bloodbath with their candidate of choice victorious, or to legitimately figure out which candidate stands for what, and who is most worthy of a vote.

The O’Connell v Coons Debate on CNN earlier this week reminded me why I have such an affinity for political debates.

There are often awkward moments in debates, which are quite possibly the best part of the entire event in my opinion.  An example would be a candidate making an inappropriate joke they clearly think to be clever, with no response whatsoever from anyone, while they laugh aloud boisterously.  It’s like watching someone with an excessively bloated ego stumble and fall in slow motion…amazing.

Another awkward occasion worth witnessing is when a candidate stumbles over a question they should be able to answer and can’t…priceless.

And one of the best awkward oddities you can witness in a debate in my opinion, is when a candidate evades then flatly refuses to provide his or her opinion or position on a particular topic that they have previously been outspoken about.

Why Wouldn’t a Candidate Want to participate in a Debate?

According to the DeMoines Register:

“The reason several prominent incumbents and front-runners are dodging debates is likely that they don’t want to endanger their political careers unnecessarily”

Clearly from the example clips above, a lot can go wrong in a debate.  Incumbents generally, at least prior to this election, had a sense that their job performance could speak for itself.  This year though, with a sort of anti-incumbent sentiment brewing, these candidates may need to be providing explanations, differentiations, and promises that previously wouldn’t have appeared necessary.

Another category of candidate that has less motivation to debate, according to Ramussen Reports would be one with a significant lead:

“As a practical matter, candidates who are behind tend to see debates as a chance to shake up the race while those who are ahead see them as an potential obstacle to be avoided.”

Who Actually Watches Debates?

According to a recent Rasmussen Reports telephone survey:

  • 48% of Likely U.S. Voters say they have watched at least one candidate debate this campaign season. But nearly as many (45%) have not
  • 49% find most political debates to be informative. Thirty-six percent (36%) think most of them are useless

In a study focused on viewers of presidential debates it was found that

“those individuals inclined to watch a debate in its entirety tended to be older, be more educated, have higher incomes, and exhibit higher levels of partisan attachment than those who did not watch the debates.”

What Effect do Debates Have on Outcomes?

You may find the answer to be surprising, or maybe not.  But according to a 2005  study:

“Studies have found that debates have little to no effect on changing or converting voters’ vote intentions (Lang & Lang, 1961). The debates, however, may exert influ- ence on those who do not identify with the major parties (Deutschmann, 1977).”

So for independent voters, debates may be influential, but for those with strong affiliations or who have already determined their selection they provide value primarily as a spectator sport.