BATON ROUGE, La. (BRPROUD) – In recent political election cycles it has become a common trend for incumbent candidates to decline to partake in debates. There are a number of reasons why a candidate would be advised against it – and how elections work has changed with the digital age.
Political debates once were the pinnacle of an election where thousands would tune in to hear what each candidate had to say. Here in Louisiana, they have always been eye-catching.
“We have a long history of great debates here in the state all the way back to famous ones in 1991 with a stage full of candidates versus David Duke. We draw a lot of attention for our debates, and they’re always splashy and exciting and I love them,” said Political Strategist Mary-Patricia Wray.
A growing trend has led candidates, especially incumbents, to turn away from the podium. It is met with criticism by the media, the underdog candidates, and even some indifference from voters. For those who put on these debates, it brings concerns for democracy.
“[Voters] have to make sure they understand what those candidates stand for and that they like their temperament. Do they like how they approach things? And you don’t really see that in scripted events as much,” said Steven Procopio, president of the Public Affairs Research Council.
Barry Erwin, with the Council For a Better Louisiana (CABL), said when a candidate used to turn down a debate it would look like they were running away. It would often have severe consequences. He also said with the general mistrust of the media by both politicians and voters there is less call for these televised debates.
Some forums go so far as leaving an empty chair for a candidate who decided not to come.
“The problem they’re in is that the people who show up and do the work and prepare and take the risk of appearing on stage, they’re often overshadowed by the idea that the frontrunner or the guy who thinks he’s the frontrunner chooses not to show up,” Wray said.
There are a number of reasons why a candidate would be advised against a debate. A lot of it has evolved around social media and how polling can be more precise.
“I really think the downfall of debates has been data and because candidates with proper campaign apparatus can now find and I.D. their individual voters that they have to get… We have so many other means and methods of reaching these voters that the debate method, which is going to reach a whole lot of people, not just the intended target audience, is a bit too risky in many instances,” Wray said.
Debates in years past would have the intention of reaching a wide range of audiences to try and sway a voter one way or another to a candidate. But with the heavy partisan feeling in the public that is no longer the case. Campaigns can target very specific voters with mailers, ads, and calls with their controlled message.
“They’re not putting their candidates out there necessarily to convince voters who might not otherwise vote for them for their support,” said LSU Professor of Political Science Robert Hogan. “What modern campaigns are about [is] mobilizing people who are already predisposed to vote for them. Messages that they send through social media are ways that they do this. They’re not interested in public forums or debates in which people are persuaded. That’s a very old style of politics.”
Wray points out that fewer people are tuning in to televised debates live. Most often they will see a wrap-up or brief coverage of it later. The concern for some candidates is that quotes can be taken out of context, or whoever is the most snappy gets the most attention.
For those who may have smaller budgets and less name recognition, debates can launch them into the spotlight without spending the big bucks.
“That to me is one of the biggest incentives to still do the debate is not the idea that the voter will see it at the time it airs, but that you can show them what you want them to see from the debate. That includes the gaffes and mistakes of your opponent,” Wray said.
But what does this really mean for the voter? While debates are well prepared for by candidates and there are lines they come tucked into their pockets – what about the candid responses?
“Debates are unique in the sense that that’s where you actually have opposition and that gives you not a complete sense but a better sense of how that person might perform when they have to deal with people that disagree with them,” Procopio said.
Erwin has been working on debates with CABL for years and said there are times when the pendulum will swing back and forth on public opinion and how it shapes elections. He believes it will swing back and people will want to see more accountability for candidates through these forums that push back and add a layer of pressure.
“Not having an ability to ask incumbents hard questions that seek to get at answers that voters are concerned about. That makes incumbents much more powerful and difficult to defeat,” Hogan said.
When elections are more closely polling or an open race, such as the gubernatorial election next year, debates are expected and much desired. For incumbent races, it will be up to the voters who want to see debates to make it known.