Sunday, January 29, 2023
Jan. 29, 2023

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Camden: Number of debates declines

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Before the public has a chance to see candidates debate in a major political race, a series of private debates has taken place behind the scenes by the campaigns.

They’ve debated where the debates will be held, who should sponsor them and what the format should be. And all of those debates come after the most important one: Should we debate at all and, if so, how many times?

The answers vary among candidates, campaigns and years. By some estimates, 2022 is a year in which debates for some major offices like Congress and governorships are down significantly.

“The 2022 cycle has seen fewer debates between candidates for Senate and governors than previous years,” Monica Potts wrote last week for the political website FiveThirtyEight.

Among the reasons she listed was the decision by the Republican National Committee to leave the Commission on Presidential Debates, claiming it was biased against GOP candidates, which may have set the tone for races down the ballot. In some states, Democrats running for statewide office are refusing to debate opponents who deny the validity of the 2020 election or question the current one.

Another study by the Brookings Institute shows that U.S. Senate candidates in the most competitive races have debated less over the past decade. The number of debates varies with each campaign cycle because of differences in those years, research analyst Cory Galliher wrote in a recent report. But even when those variations are taken into account, the trend since 2010 has been a sharp decline in debates.

“The simplest explanation for this trend is that campaigns are more frequently deciding that debates do not benefit candidates,” Galliher wrote. “Debates can be more of a liability than a boon.”

If not a liability, debates may be a wash in terms of moving voters.

Every political science major can point to the first Richard Nixon-John Kennedy debate in 1960, where a tanned, youthful JFK bested a pale, sweaty Nixon to win over the television audience, despite the fact that most people who listened to the debate on the radio thought Nixon won on the issues.

The real impact of that first Nixon-Kennedy debate might have been that it convinced incumbents or candidates who were in the lead not to debate because it isn’t really in their best interests.

Incumbents typically see less advantage in debating and are likely to try to limit their participation, said Cornell Clayton, a Washington State University political science professor and director of the Thomas S. Foley Institute for Public Policy.

“Challengers want as many as they can get,” he added.

In Washington, debates have been sponsored by a range of entities, including The Spokesman-Review and other newspapers, commercial and public television stations, the League of Women Voters and the Washington Debate Coalition, which is an arm of the Seattle City Club.

The modern record for U.S. Senate debates in Washington was set in 1992, when Brock Adams retired. Democrat Patty Murray, then a state senator, and U.S. Rep. Rod Chandler, a Republican, debated five times — in Vancouver, Seattle, Olympia and twice in Spokane — plus did a joint radio session after their first Spokane debate. Since that first campaign, Murray has usually done two debates or, like this year, a debate and a joint town hall session.

One exception to the rule that incumbents usually try to duck debates was U.S. Rep. Tom Foley, who usually agreed to as many debates as he could fit into the schedule after the primary and the House recessed for campaigning. When he first ran in 1964, Foley had trouble getting U.S. Rep. Walt Horan to agree to a debate and contended an incumbent always has a duty to debate their record. Some Foley challengers declined to debate, but others took up the challenge. In his final campaign against Republican George Nethercutt, the two debated nine times in the seven weeks between the primary and the general election.

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