Recently, on August 27th, Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi suggested that there be no presidential debates due to her assertion that President Trump is not truthful and that it would be fruitless to spend three hours rebutting false narratives. While she may be arguing in the negative, I will be arguing in the affirmative. The need for presidential debates has never been more vital, and there is a way to do them without endangering the health of a large group of people.
Why do we need them, and why this year? Well, for starters, we have a large amount of the electorate that has still not made up their minds on whom they want to elect. Using the FiveThirtyEight model, about 8% of the electorate is undecided. That is an astounding amount given the issues of the times. In a typical presidential year, the amount of voters who can or will be persuaded is about 4%.
During the convention weeks, we saw two starkly competing views. Americans saw two different agendas. Therefore, the two presidential candidates should argue their cases as should the vice-presidential candidates. Such a compare and contrast will only help to inform the electorate.
Amidst the COVID-19 pandemic, there is still a perfectly safe way to produce the debates. Go on YouTube and watch the Kennedy Nixon debates. Aside from a handful of reporters and Howard K. Smith as moderator, the two stood went toe-to-toe in front of an empty audience. Subsequent debates were also in studios, with one separating Nixon and Kennedy in different studios. With today’s modern technology, the debates could be safer than the Nixon-Kennedy debates by implementing a modern conferencing platform that the recent Democratic National Convention has demonstrated to be an effective form of political communication.
Now, we do live in tribal America. Many people believe that doing or not doing the debates will tip the scales to their side of the electoral argument. For the most part, that is true. The Republicans have probably benefited as much as the Democrats. Today, we are afforded the luxury of looking back at these debates through the lens of history. Therefore, I am not naming a winner based on polling before or after the debates; rather, I am giving rating a winner based on the effect of the debate on the overall race. Here is my case for making the statement that both sides have benefited and suffered from debates:
1976 – Jimmy Carter v. Gerald Ford. In 1974, in the wake of Watergate, the Democrats gained many seats in the house. Going into the election, from the economy to the pardon of Nixon, there were many issues that had Ford on the defensive. And while Ford got positively scorched for asserting Poland and Eastern Europe was free and autonomous, he could make a case for stability and governance. After three debates and vice-presidential debate, the race was very close. Advantage GOP.
1980 – Ronald Reagan & John Anderson v. Jimmy Carter. The Iran hostage crisis, economy, and energy prices had Carter on the defensive. Ronald Reagan and John Anderson had only one debate to make their cases. Reagan won with “…are you better off now than you were four years ago?” It was one of the most memorable moments in presidential debate history, and Reagan surged in the polls soon after. Advantage GOP.
1984 – Ronald Reagan v. Walter Mondale. Incumbent Reagan stumbled in debate one, and former VP Walter Mondale was sharp. Polls closed a bit. In debate two, Reagan joked in response to a question about his age he wouldn’t make Mondale’s “…youth and inexperience an issue.” It was another stinging quip from Reagan that the press eagerly printed the next day. Advantage GOP.
1988 – Michael Dukakis vs. George H.W. Bush. Bernard Shaw asked that fateful question about Dukakis’ wife being assaulted, and the candidate gave a robotic answer. In the summer, Dukakis had a considerable lead, but on election day, Bush won comfortably. Many political commentators and historians have said this moment struck a decisive blow on Dukakis’ presidential campaign. Advantage GOP.
1992 – Bill Clinton & H.Ross Perot vs. George H.W. Bush. Bush seemed impatient and frequently looked at his watch. All that Clinton needed to do was show he could stand toe-to-toe and have a presidential presence, which he did. Advantage Dems.
1996 – Bob Dole & H.Ross Perot vs. Bill Clinton. There were no memorable moments, which went in favor of Clinton as the incumbent. Dole needed to make a case for change and compelling contrasts to Clinton’s policies. All Clinton needed to do was to show he had a grasp of the details and did. Advantage Dems.
2000 – George W. Bush v. Al Gore – Gore was following Clinton – a popular, though controversial president. During the debate, he made several eye-rolls and sighs. It made for some classic Saturday Night Live material but failed to display him as presidential. Bush was able to state his case succinctly without the public non-verbal cues of Gore. It was an audition to become president, and Bush came out on top. Advantage GOP.
2004 – George W. Bush v. John Kerry – Kerry had several strong moments in the debates, but Bush was consistent and composed. A Pew survey following the debates said that while Kerry was the so-called ‘winner,’ it did not significantly tip the scales, and Bush maintained a lead. Tie.
2008 – Barack Obama vs. John McCain – This was a debate of strong contrasts: youth vs. age and competing views on policy. John McCain had been in the Senate for over two decades at that point, but Obama was a first-term junior senator from Illinois facing a country i
mbittered by the financial meltdown. Obama needed to appear presidential and insightful, and lived up to those expectations. Advantage Dems
2012 – Mitt Romney vs. Barack Obama – In debate one, Romney had a far more robust performance, but Obama came back in the subsequent discussions. The second debate, in particular, Romney made a massive gaffe by incorrectly asserting that it took Obama two weeks to call the attack on the Benghazi consulate in Libya as an “act of terror,” and subsequently getting fact-checked on air by the moderator. Advantage Dems.
2016 – Donald Trump vs. Hilary Clinton – This one is tricky. We all know the polls in battleground states did not predict the result. What seemed to happen was that voters did not like the contrast of Trump to Clinton. But, then Trump could go on all of the network shows and do rallies and undo whatever damage was done by the debates. Here is a case where Dems won the debates but lost the war (i.e. The election).
Add it up, and it’s 5 for the Democrats, 5 for the Republicans, and one tie. Nobody should get too tribal over who will benefit and who will be hurt by debating. So, my final argument is this: If we don’t have debates this cycle, we may lose them forever. Why? Each side could come up with a reason why debating is not in their interest, argue that it is not in the public’s interest, and therefore, not come to the stage. In the above rundown, you can see enough close elections where debates probably made a difference. America’s electorate deserves to witness the comparison and contrast of ideas. If voters don’t watch, the option is there. Perhaps minds will be changed for those who watch; indeed, their opinions will be more informed. In the interest of having an informed electorate this year, we need to have debates between the presidential and vice-presidential candidates. I yield the rest of my time.