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President Donald Trump grips his podium as he participates in the first 2020 presidential campaign debate with Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden held on the campus of the Cleveland Clinic at Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland, Ohio, U.S., September 29, 2020. REUTERS/Brian Snyder
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The worrying decline of the Senate candidate debate

As the U.S. midterms near, candidate debates—long a fixture of election season in America—have become rare or altogether absent in many of this year’s most competitive Senate races. But rather than an anomaly, 2022 is only the latest data point in a pattern of Senate debate decline. Though such debates may be a casualty of electoral calculus, their diminishing frequency means the loss of a valuable democratic institution that encourages principled policy engagement and dialogue in an ideas-challenged political moment.

Senate debates in 2022: a continuation of a pattern of decline

In elections over the past decade, Senate candidates in the most competitive Senate races have debated less and less. The below table presents the total number of debates per Senate race in the top five most competitive states in each election year for the past six elections (for more detail on the methodology of the analysis, see the explainer below Table 1), as well as of debates currently scheduled in 2022 Senate races. As recently as the early 2010s, the most competitive Senate contests routinely saw upwards of 10, and up to 17, debates per election year.

Table 1: Number of Debates in the Top Five Most Competitive U.S. Senate Races

Year  2010  2012  2014  2016  2018  2020  2022 
Number of Debates per Top 5 Races   17 11 14 11 9 7 6

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Since 2016, that number has failed to rise above nine. For 2020, just seven debates took place. Past or scheduled debates for 2022 only number six.

Because debates are voluntary exercises, and whether they happen and how often is at the mercy of campaigns, there is significant year-to-year variation in debate frequency; one debate-happy or -averse campaign can skew the totals for any given year. But even with this variation, the downward trend holds.

That 2022 continues that pattern is notable. For the top five most closely decided states in the 2020 presidential election have a Senate election this year. Polls indicate that most of these races will be remarkably close when the ballots are tallied; control of the upper chamber hangs in the balance. Yet as of this writing, candidates in those most competitive races have only faced off on the debate stage three times this election season. (For reference, by this point in the 2020 election campaign, by no means a bumper year for Senate debates because of COVID-19 measures, general-election candidates in the most competitive Senate races had debated five times.) While some of those debate-less races have pegged dates this month for a first—and likely only—debate, others show no signs of debate life at all.

Declining debates—a product of electoral calculus?

The simplest explanation for this trend is that campaigns are more frequently deciding that debates do not benefit candidates. Unlike theorists and analysts who may see debates—and campaign conduct—in the wider scheme of democratic health (as discussed in the following section), campaign managers, staffers, and candidates have but one goal: to win in November. If debates hurt, or do not advance, that overriding objective, they may be jettisoned in the same way a losing campaign slogan or policy plank would be.

And indeed, debates can be more of a liability than a boon. They may produce unforced errors. After the debate has ended, unflattering snippets or gaffes from the session may be disseminated on social media. Partisan attitudes are so calcified in America that the enduring question undergirding every debate: who has the best ideas? may no longer matter to most voters.

Furthermore, there is no guarantee—research and certain polls suggest that debates may not meaningfully shift election outcomes—that a winning debate performance carries a benefit. A flop, on the other hand, is likely to hurt the loser. The first televised debate between two presidential candidates—Kennedy v. Nixon, 1960, in which a green, unshaven Nixon was outshone by the polished Kennedy—established that omnipresent risk.

Other electoral considerations factor in. Incumbents, for example, have for over half a century ducked debates explicitly because their advantages were already baked in. Some candidates lack the flashy smile, smooth manner, and other affectations that lend themselves to audience satisfaction. Still others openly admit that their oratory skills are lackluster or that debates are likely to accentuate their flaws. Finally, given that debate viewership (as a total share of the national television audience) has been dropping for decades, campaigns may not see the time and resources necessary for debate preparation as a worthwhile expenditure of limited funds.

Electoral calculus may thus be the most parsimonious explanation for the Senate debate’s decline. But the consequences of that decline are more than electoral. In an age of democratic backsliding (and when more and more voters rank threats to democracy as the nation’s most pressing issue), it may be short-sighted to view political developments only through the prism of electoral concerns. Rather, debates, like any other institutional norm, must be evaluated in a wider political context to understand how their fate affects democracy’s overall health.

How democracy suffers when candidates don’t debate

Debates carry weight as norms and symbols. In bringing together candidates onto one stage to put forth their understanding of and solutions to the issues about which voters care most, they make for a more informed electorate and underscore principled engagement with policy ideas as the substance of democracy. So, their reduction, like that of other democratic norms, represents the shuttering of yet another avenue for voter education and the democratic battle of ideas.

Debates recenter policy in campaigns. They force candidates to exhibit their intellectual and policy mettle, putting them incontrovertibly on the record. Away from teleprompters and the curation of aides, candidates are left to the wilds of their understanding of the pertinent issues and their ability to convey their vision to the listening electorate. Voters see in direct juxtaposition the people and ideas competing to represent them.

Debates also help to level the political playing field. The debate stage strips away the laurels candidates may rest on in their non-campaign lives; a field organizer or a small-business owner facing off against a former governor or billionaire reifies the bedrock democratic ideal that any citizen may win the privilege to represent their fellow Americans if they have their communities’ interests at heart. In doing so, debates humanize candidates, making it more difficult for campaigns to caricature their rivals or their ideas as illegitimate or an existential threat to be countered with violence or insurrection.

And critically, voters take up the torch of political discourse and education when debates end. Research has shown that after watching debates, voters are more likely to engage their family and peers in political conversation. They report having a better sense of the salient issues in any given race and seek further information about the topics discussed. And, even if debates are not guaranteed to change their minds, citizens nevertheless believe debates are important.

These and other conveyances make debates more than an electoral ritual. They confirm them as a norm central to democratic health. Their fading away in contests for one of the nation’s most powerful offices—U.S. Senate—threatens another chink in democracy’s foundations. And with institutional norms already suffering under the weight of toxic polarization, any political exercise that pushes candidates and voters to meaningfully interact with each other and their rivals’ ideas should be safeguarded.

Conclusion

Democracy cannot survive when it is driven solely by electoral calculus. It instead necessarily depends on the occasional subordination of purely electoral advantage-seeking to decisions that nurse democracy as a whole. That can be seen (with diminishing frequency) in representatives taking politically risky votes against their own party line or state legislators voting to impanel neutral commissions to redraw state and congressional districts. That type of political courage halts—or at the very least slows—the race to the bottom accelerated by the worst tribal and hyper-partisan impulses of our politics.

Although this analysis only considers the declining frequency of debates for U.S. Senate, that subset of debates is not alone. Other consequential 2022 statewide races are likely to come and go without a debate between the general-election candidates. The future of presidential debates is also in doubt, as the Republican National Committee has pledged to withhold its candidates from 2024 debates unless major—and unlikely—changes are made to the Commission on Presidential Debates’ rules.

The decline of the Senate debate does not herald immediate democratic implosion in the United States. Rather, as with other uncodified norms, its demise weakens the institutional foundations without which democracy becomes perilously brittle. In our hyperpolitical world, how campaigns—and candidates—conduct themselves matters. They thus do democracy a service when they buck the trend and meet on the debate stage—a message they can champion as Americans fret over the future of the nation’s politics and governance.

The author would like to thank Dr. Tom Hollihan, professor of communication at the Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism at the University of Southern California, and Dr. Timothy M. Hagle, associate professor of political science at the University of Iowa, for their insightful comments on an earlier draft of this analysis. The author is also grateful to Claire Macedonia, Riya Mehta, and Adarsh Patel, interns in the Governance Studies program, for their research assistance.

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