Political debates used to be a hallmark of campaign season. However, more and more candidates are opting to avoid debating in favor of meeting with people directly.
“Candidates have different motivations to debate, and over time, those who are ahead often are much more reluctant to debate than those who need to catch up,” said University of Kansas Political Science Professor Burdett Loomis. “At the same time, there are general norms, often reflected in editorials, that debating is a good thing, and serves democracy in various ways.”
This fall, those demanding debates tend to be Democrats, who trail in most polls for statewide office. Democratic gubernatorial candidate Tom Holland challenged Republican nominee Sam Brownback to 10 debates. The Holland and Brownback campaigns have agreed on two: A debate held at the State Fair on Sept. 11 and a half-hour debate for KWCH on Oct. 7, which will feature all four candidates.
Holland’s campaign refused a planned third debate with WIBW, which sponsored an often raucous debate at the State Fair.
“To us, it didn’t make sense to go back on the same AM radio station that already sponsored a debate, hosted by less-than-neutral hosts, in the middle of the day when a majority of voters aren’t able to tune in,” said Holland Communications Director Seth Bundy. “This would not accomplish the goal of giving voters across Kansas easy access to the candidates in an unfiltered way, especially considering there are more credible offers on the table.”
The give-and-take surrounding scheduling these debates underscores the political maneuvering seen this late in campaign season.
“It’s understandable that Senator Brownback would want to limit the number of debates, and control the format as much as possible,” Loomis said. “And Tom Holland would want to debate in almost any circumstance, but not to the point he would knowingly enter an unfair environment.”
For his part, Brownback said he would rather meet directly with the people.
“I frankly think it’s better to go out and hit all 105 counties,” Brownback said, during a stop at The Well on Friday afternoon. “Hopefully, (debates) get some interest in the discussion overall. I think (campaign stops) are far more useful to the public.”
In some cases, not having a debate may be due to candidates being new to the political process.
“What’s interesting this year is that there are a fair number of inexperienced candidates (often Tea Party affiliated), who have neither the knowledge nor the experience to debate effectively. In such circumstances, they often not only avoid debates, but also avoid the mainstream press altogether (e.g., O’Donnell in Delaware)” said Loomis. “They rely on alternative forms of communication – social media, specific friendly media outlets – and thus avoid any kind of confrontation in a debate or exchange with regular reporters.”
Loomis, however, questioned how well this would work with uninformed or busy voters, and whether or not it would prove destructive to the electoral system.
“One possibility is that outside groups come in with a lot of money at the end of the campaign and present an overwhelming media message, which may well move this latter group to the polls,” Loomis said. “Democracy is predicated on an exchange of ideas, and refusing to debate can be regarded broadly as undermining democracy. But I see the trends in (the) above more dangerous than the politics-as-usual approach.”
Many feel, however, despite trends, debates hold an important place in our electoral system.
“I think voters are always well-served by debates,” said Washburn University Political Science Professor Bob Beatty, who points to the needs for a citizen’s commission on debates here in Kansas, similar to what is set up nationally for presidential debates.
“That wasn’t government intervention. That was citizen intervention,” Beatty said referring to the citizen’s commission. “No presidential candidate has bucked that system. If candidates refuse to debate, then a citizen’s group might have to be formed to force them to. Right now there’s nothing in place.”