Back when voters had limited access to seeing presidential candidates or hearing them expound on their campaign promises, televised debates between the candidates were very important. It was during these debates, such as the one between Democrat John F. Kennedy and Republican Richard Nixon, that undecided voters make up their mind decided voters solidified their choice.
In more recent years, presidential candidates receive phenomenal and relentless exposure from a multiplex media community of television and radio stations, newspapers, political commentators, the internet, and the aggressive social media. Since it became official that incumbent President Donald Trump, a Republican, would be challenged by former Vice President Joe Biden, a Democrat, in the November election, there have been non-stop back and forth between the candidates and their respective campaigns.
In 2012, incumbent President Barack Obama gave an uncharacteristically poor performance in the first presidential debate with Republican Mitt Romney. But it hardly mattered. He rebounded in the other two debates and won the election convincingly.
In 2016, Hillary Clinton clearly defeated Donald Trump in each of the three presidential debates but, notwithstanding, she lost the presidential election.
However, most voters have made up their minds even before hearing the candidates on the debate stage.
A Politico/Morning poll taken shortly before the first 2020 presidential debate indicated 86 percent of voters had already decided who they would be voting for in November. This included 93 percent of Biden voters and 98 percent of Trump’s. Only 21 percent of those surveyed said any of the debates would have an impact on their vote. Similarly, a recent Wall Street Journal/NBC News poll showed that only 29 percent of voters said the upcoming debates would be “extremely” or “quite” important to their final decision on how to vote.
After the debate—which was largely criticized as a debacle for the hostility between the candidates and lack of substance—another survey indicated 87 percent of Republicans said the debate made no difference how they would vote.
Essentially, while these debates should serve as an important forum to enable voters to further understand the candidates’ stance on the issues by exchanging their policy viewpoints, they have become, judging from the first presidential debate, hyped reality shows, aimed to entertain rather than inform voters.
But, ironically, voters do watch debates. The Politico/Morning poll indicated 72 percent of voters planned to watch the debates although the majority had made up their mind who they were voting for. Post-debate polls after the first presidential debate indicated it had one of the highest viewer ratings in the past 20 years.
It seems although voters expect little in policy information in the current cycle of presidential debates, they are still eager to tune in, hoping to see which candidate make a colossal gaffe, or which slams the other with stunning comments.
As seen in the first presidential debate and last week’s vice-presidential debate, the candidates use the debate to play to their base of supporters, while ignoring the pre-agreed rules set for the debate. This willingness to behave badly without conforming to the debate rules, has devalued the quality of the debates, and the role of the moderators who have been made to look most ineffective.
There’s an abundance of serious policy issues which American voters deserve to hear the presidential candidates discuss in these primetime debates. While the management, or mismanagement, of the COVID-19 pandemic is the foremost issue in this year’s presidential election, voters need to hear sound exchanges of views on the deteriorating economy, healthcare reform, immigration reform, foreign affairs, climate change and other issues.
America is at too serious a juncture in its history for candidates to engage in frivolous debates and we’re at risk of being irreparably divided. Voters would like to see the candidates show respect for each other while articulately discussing the prevailing issues. This has been effectively done in previous presidential debates. Debates between Ronald Reagan and Jimmy Carter, and Barack Obama and John McCain come to mind.
At the very least, voters expect each of the candidates to listen to each other’s positions on the issues, and give sensible responses without rude interruptions, while abiding by the accepted debate rules.
If either of the presidential campaigns, the debate commission, and the moderators cannot assure a debate in which the candidates are allowed to respectfully articulate their policy ideas, then another presidential debate this year would be a waste of valuable TV and viewers time.
As voters decide if they should head to the polls, they deserve to be mobilized by a forum that inspires them to vote, not another debacle that disgusts and turns them off.