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This midterm season, the role of the debate has changed

The debate stage is set ahead of the start of the second and final presidential debate Oct. 22, 2020, at Belmont University in Nashville, Tenn.
Patrick Semansky
The debate stage is set ahead of the start of the second and final presidential debate Oct. 22, 2020, at Belmont University in Nashville, Tenn.

Updated September 22, 2022 at 12:55 PM ET

Fall means crunching leaves, college football, pumpkin spice and sweater weather. In election years, it's always meant something else as well — the arrival of debate season.

This year, though, things are a little different. It was once a given that candidates — especially those seeking statewide office in a midterm election year — would face off with their main opponent for three or more one-on-one debates, so voters could see them side by side and hear them answer questions and explain their positions on the issues.

In 2022, many candidates are skipping the debate ritual all together. Even in places where there are debates, expect fewer.In states like Pennsylvania, Wisconsin, Georgia, Arizona and North Carolina, candidates for the U.S. Senate will meet just once in a debate. In some places — like Nevada and Missouri — it appears likely there will be no debates between major party Senate nominees.

The idea that candidates for office will engage in public debate is deeply ingrained in this country's history. In 1858, a Senate hopeful named Abraham Lincoln participated in a series of legendary debates with incumbent Sen. Stephen A. Douglas.

In the process, the reputations of both men were enhanced. While Douglas ultimately won that election, Lincoln was elected president two years later.

The modern debate era began in 1960 when Sen. John F. Kennedy (D-Mass.) squared off against Vice President Richard M. Nixon. This time television cameras were present. The national broadcast of the series of debates became must-see TV.

In this Sept. 26, 1960 file photo, Sen. John Kennedy, left, and Vice President Richard Nixon appear on television studio monitor set during their debate in Chicago.
/ AP
In this Sept. 26, 1960 file photo, Sen. John Kennedy, left, and Vice President Richard Nixon appear on television studio monitor set during their debate in Chicago.

Two other longstanding traditions were born out of the Kennedy-Nixon debates: First, there was the use of journalists as moderators and questioners for the event. Second, looks started to matter.

With the introduction of television, public perception was based as much on how the candidates looked as it was on what they said. Kennedy wore make-up and appeared much more cool and collected, while the camera caught Nixon wiping sweat from his lip and brow and appearing in need of a shave.

Famously, a majority of Americans who only listened to the debate on radio rated Nixon as having won. Those who watched on television rated Kennedy much higher. Kennedy went on to win the presidential election that year.

Debate stumbles can have major costs for candidates

In the decades to follow, the idea took hold that candidates for both federal and statewide offices were expected to debate.

To not do so would hurt a campaign. Now though, as with so much in campaigns and elections, even that long held truism is being tested.

"American politics has changed," said political analyst and veteran Iowa-based journalist David Yepsen. "Campaigns have changed. And with that, the role of debates has changed."

Yepsen, who has also served as a debate moderator on the presidential level and for local offices, explained these days campaigns often see more risk than reward in debating.

"For for many candidates, there's just no upside to this and it's not worth the risk of making a mistake," he says, "a mistake that can then be magnified and amplified for days (or longer) on social media."

Yepsen added, "It just discourages donors." This can have major literal and figurative costs. Donors are a campaign's lifeblood.

Examples of embarrassing debate missteps abound. Sometimes it's just a momentary brain-freeze, like when 2012 GOP presidential hopeful Rick Perry simply tried to list the three cabinet departments he'd eliminate if elected.

He mentioned the Department of Education, then the Commerce Department, but then he blanked. He could not recall the third department on his list, awkwardly hemming and hawing before giving up and softly muttering, "oops."

Perry's campaign never recovered, and his viral moment lives on, on the internet as one of many cautionary tales to future campaigns.

Or there was the time in 2008, when Sen. Barack Obama was seen as rude — even churlish — when he said to his opponent Sen. Hillary Clinton, "You're likeable enough Hillary."

It is moments like these that campaigns fear. With the advent of Twitter, TikTok, texting and other instantaneous means of spreading news, such a moment can be even more damaging than ever, making many candidates more wary of taking the debate stage in the first place.

Deeply divided politics make debates less popular for politicians

Another factor in the shrinking number of debates is that you can no longer assume your opponent will abide by the rules. As a candidate, Donald Trump took pride in flouting the rules on the debate stage, challenging moderators and ignoring traditional debate decorum.

That was chiefly on display in 2020 during the first presidential debate when President Trump constantly interrupted his challenger Joe Biden. Exasperated, Biden finally said to Trump, "Will you shut up, man?"

It is not just on display on the national stage. This year, at a primary debate for the GOP nomination for the U.S. Senate in March, Senate candidates Josh Mandel and Mike Gibbons got into an argument. They faced off at the front of the riser, shouting at each other, literally bumping chests and using obscenities until the moderator broke it up.

That is what can happen when candidates actually do take the stage, but more and more, debates are getting derailed amid pre-debate arguments over the terms.

Experienced debate moderator David Yepsen said that provides an excuse by allowing a campaign to claim the other side was simply being unreasonable about the rules and conditions.

Yepsen calls it the debate equivalent of running out the clock, freeing up the campaigns to reach their base directly through other means: "It's a safer political move to do your campaign with paid media and social media and door knocking."

John Selleck, a Republican strategist in Michigan, said the fact that mainstream media outlets are no longer as dominant as they once were lessens the shame that used to be a concern if a candidate skipped a debate.

According to Selleck, "campaigns can directly target the voters they want all day, every day, due to technological advances and that's all that matters to them."

Hyper-partisanship and animosity limit appeal of debates

In addition to the shorter than usual tally of Senate debates, the same thing is playing out in races for governor across the country as well.

It looks like there will not be a gubernatorial debate in Arizona, where Democrat Katie Hobbs refuses to debate 2020 election denier and Trump endorsed GOP nominee Kari Lake.

Lake, meanwhile, is eager to debate and has countered by calling Hobbs spineless. Hobbs has said she does not want to provide a big, statewide platform for an opponent who will spread lies and conspiracy theories.

Democratic strategist Tara McGowan — who now runs a left leaning digital news site — thinks Hobbs is making a mistake. According to McGowan, it's important to debate even when your opponent has extreme positions.

"We have to give the American people more credit," McGowan said, "They can see through lies, especially if they are seeing both sides, if they are watching both candidates respond to the same questions and see that clear contrast."

It is also true that some Republicans are not interested in a traditional debate moderated by journalists from mainstream media outlets.

In Pennsylvania, GOP gubernatorial nominee Doug Mastriano — also an election denier endorsed by Trump — has blocked news organizations from attending his campaign events. GOP strategist John Selleck explained this is how many campaigns operate now, "especially Trump-America First campaigns, are exhibiting no interest in talking to the media or anyone outside their base."

Still, debates occupy a special place in the electoral process. David Dix — a Philadelphia based consultant who works with Republicans and Democrats — said it not all about tradition. Debates are ultimately about helping voters make a choice.

"Democracy requires an exchange of ideas in a public forum that citizens can digest and then respond to," Dix argued.

He added there is a cold reality in politics today: while democracy needs debates, campaigns do not. Campaigns, he explained, are all about collecting data — through social media and other means — that does more for targeting their likely voters than a debate can.

"Algorithmic data is much more important than trying to win or lose a 90 minute debate. That's the direction campaigns are going in this day. And I don't see it coming back or pivoting," Dix said.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

You're most likely to find NPR's Don Gonyea on the road, in some battleground state looking for voters to sit with him at the local lunch spot, the VFW or union hall, at a campaign rally, or at their kitchen tables to tell him what's on their minds. Through countless such conversations over the course of the year, he gets a ground-level view of American elections. Gonyea is NPR's National Political Correspondent, a position he has held since 2010. His reports can be heard on all NPR News programs and at NPR.org. To hear his sound-rich stories is akin to riding in the passenger seat of his rental car, traveling through Iowa or South Carolina or Michigan or wherever, right along with him.

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