ELECTIONS

Up for debate? Midterm candidates dispute rules and dodge debates in a new campaign normal

  • It looks like this campaign season will see fewer debates than usual
  • Candidates have argued about debate rules in key races in Georgia, Arizona, and Pennsylvania
  • Among the reasons for debate avoidance: Candidates feel like they have more to lose than gain

WASHINGTON – After weeks of arguing about dates, locations and rules, Georgia-based Senate candidates Herschel Walker and Raphael Warnock agreed this week to stage a one-on-one debate – one debate only.

In Wisconsin, Democratic Gov. Tony Evers and Republican challenger Tim Michels pledged this week to hold one debate, a low number for a big race in a politically engaged state.

On the other hand: One is more than none, and that's the number of big debates that several states still have at this point.

Less than eight weeks before Election Day, no debates are scheduled in many major races across the country, including key statewide contests in Arizona, Pennsylvania, Michigan, Ohio and Wisconsin – signs that we are in an era of debate avoidance, experts say, a political environment in which candidates across the spectrum look for excuses to avoid battling their rivals face-to-face.

"They can't control a debate in a way they can control every other campaign event they set up," said Tammy R. Vigil, an associate professor of communication at Boston University who has written about debates.

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Donald Trump and Joe Biden faced off during the final presidential debate at Belmont University in Nashville, Tennessee, on October 22, 2020.

'Different motivations' for debates

A rising number of candidates are questioning whether debates are effective anymore, analysts said, and believe they have more to lose than to gain by participating.

"You can misstate something, you can make a mistake that can really hurt you," said Kathleen Hall Jamieson, director of the Annenberg Public Policy Center at the University of Pennsylvania and author of several books on political communication.

"You have a high number of candidates who would be disadvantaged if they debated."

The dearth of debates is also a product of the rise of Donald Trump and an increase in political polarization, analysts said.

For whatever reason, candidates in statewide races seem to want less to do with debates, according to analysts, and the arguments among candidates about rules and formats.

"When they can find an excuse not to do them, they take it, oftentimes," Vigil said. "In different situations you have different motivations."

Pennsylvania back-and-forth

Most often, candidates say they are negotiating rules for debates and hope to reach agreement soon – maybe.

In the Pennsylvania Senate race, Republican candidate Mehmet Oz claimed Democratic opponent John Fetterman was ducking debates in part because he was still too ill from the stroke he suffered in May.

Fetterman and his aides said the two campaigns were negotiating details. In a statement Wednesday, the campaign said it had agreed to a single debate on Oct. 25, two weeks before Election Day.

"Oz’s demand for a Labor Day debate was a stunt, not a serious proposal," the statement said. "As a doctor, he surely knows that a stroke survivor gets better with every week that passes."

But that statement produced only more back-and-forth.

The Oz camp responded by saying it wants more conditions, including an expansion of the debate to 90 minutes rather than 60, and an explanation from a moderator that Fetterman plans to use a closed-captioning system. It also is pushing for an earlier debate, saying that "Pennsylvania voters should not have to wait until October 25th to hear from their candidates."

Replied the Fetterman campaign: "Let’s be real: If we agreed to 10 debates, Oz would be demanding 20. He’s going to keep trying to move the goalposts, because this is his only play."

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Debates in Arizona, Georgia

In the governors' race in Arizona, Democratic candidate Katie Hobbs has refused to debate her Republican opponent. She says Kari Lake would use a debate to spread more false claims about 2020 election and echo Trump's denial that he lost to President Joe Biden.

Hobbs and aides have also said Lake would interrupt and break decorum rules, not unlike the way Trump did in a famously contentious 2020 debate with Biden in which he constantly interrupted his opponent and argued with moderator Chris Wallace.

Kari Lake, Republican candidate for Arizona governor, speaks at the Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) in Dallas, Aug. 5, 2022.

A Hobbs campaign statement said that "debating a conspiracy theorist" would "only lead to constant interruptions, pointless distractions, and childish name-calling."

In a video, Lake said she would continue to push for debates, asking Hobbs to "grow a spine" and go before the voters.

In Georgia, Warnock said he would push for more debates. The incumbent senator and his supporters said more debates would better expose Walker's lack of knowledge about the issues.

Before this week's agreement for an Oct. 14 set-to in Savannah, Walker had said he wanted to make sure the debate was "for the fans, not about a political party or about some media. This week, he said: "I’m looking forward to October 14th so the voters can see the contrast between us." 

Debates can only hurt you, some say  

In the modern media age, analysts said, few candidates "win" debates – they can only lose them.

"The refusers figure they have more to lose than to gain," said Jack Pitney, professor of government at Claremont McKenna College in California.

There have been exceptions, of course.

In a 1974 Senate Democratic primary in Ohio, John Glenn helped himself immensely during a debate with incumbent Howard Metzenbaum. When Metzenbaum suggested that Glenn's years as an astronaut didn't qualify as a real job, Glenn responded by citing his years as a Marine and a fighter pilot as well as a space traveler: "It wasn't my checkbook, it was my life that was on the line."

In an election in Texas in 1994, businessman and future President George W. Bush held his own in a 1994 debate against incumbent Gov. Ann Richards.

More recently, debates have been defined by mistakes, most of them in presidential debates that are more watched by the public.

In 2011, Republican presidential candidate Rick Perry forgot the name of a government department he planned to cut, his famous "oops" moment that has echoed for years – especially when Perry accepted Trump's offer to run the Energy Department, one of the agencies he had wanted to cut.

Debates don't move many voters, studies show

Over the years, studies have shown that debates simply don't move that many voters, even less in a polarized era in which more people back their team regardless of quality. "There aren't that many undecided voters who are going to change their minds because of a debate," Jamieson said.

Last month, the Pew Research Center reported that "growing shares in each party now describe those in the other party as more closed-minded, dishonest, immoral and unintelligent than other Americans" – numbers that have grown in the Trump era.

"In 2016, about half of Republicans (47%) and slightly more than a third of Democrats (35%) said those in the other party were a lot or somewhat more immoral than other Americans," the report said. "Today, 72% of Republicans regard Democrats as more immoral, and 63% of Democrats say the same about Republicans."

That kind of vitriol has seeped into debates, and negotiations over debates.

Nowadays, analysts said, candidates use debates to appeal to their base supporters, hoping to crank up turnout.

"People are either rooting or hate-watching," Pitney said. "They're not deliberating."

A tradition as old as the nation 

Much has been written about presidential debates, but state-level clashes have a much longer history.

As far back as 1789, two candidates for a congressional seat in Virginia went from place to place to debate the virtues and defects of the just-ratified U.S. Constitution: James Madison and James Monroe, both future presidents. (Madison won.)

The most historic set of state debates took place in Illinois in 1858, when Abraham Lincoln and Stephen Douglas met seven times to argue over slavery and its extension into new U.S. territories.

Douglas won reelection to the Senate in in that election – an era when legislatures picked senators – but the debates made Lincoln famous nationwide. He went on to defeat Douglas in the 1860 presidential election.

In the age of modern media, televised debates have been mainstays of mayoral, gubernatorial and congressional elections. More recently, arguments about the rules have increased.

Trump and polarization

Debate avoidance appears to be another byproduct of the Trump political era, a time of increased partisanship and polarization.

Trump himself benefited from Republican debates during the 2016 presidential campaign cycle. His clashes with moderators and opponents alike boosted him with conservatives disdainful of the media and the so-called Republican establishment.

Still, Trump refused to do party debates in 2016 after he built up a huge lead in delegates that would prove unassailable.

During his reelection bid in 2020, Trump broke debate rules by interrupting Biden and Wallace. Trump refused to participate in another debate because it was going to be held remotely amid the COVID-19 pandemic.

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Trump's success inspired other candidates to be more aggressive on both the campaign trail and the debate stage.

Arguments about midterm debates come at a time of more questioning about the future of presidential campaign debates, the most famous and most-watched of the genre.

The Republican National Committee has told the Commission on Presidential Debates its 2024 presidential candidate will not participate in commission-sponsored debates unless it changes its rules on dates and moderators.

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That creates the possibility of no presidential debates in fall 2024.

Jessica Taylor, the Senate and governors editor of the nonpartisan Cook Political Report, said these days she's more surprised when candidate do agree to debate than when they don't.

"Debates," she said, "usually only make a difference if someone screws up."