From an independent perspective, the rules for inclusion in the presidential debates reeks of political cronyism and is emblematic of everything that is wrong with the two-party duopoly in the United States.
Since the 1960 campaign, when John F. Kennedy and Richard Nixon squared off in the first nationally televised debates, the media has taken a solid role in shaping how Americans view politics.
Getting on the debate platform, sharing your ideas with the nation, and even winning over voters by ‘winning’ the debates is seen as critical — but in modern history, success in the debates doesn’t always transfer over to success at the ballot box.
Just ask John Kerry, Al Gore, H. Ross Perot, Michael Dukakis, and Walter Mondale — all of whom did very well in the debates (winning at least half of the debates), but not capturing the prize on Election Day.
Of great interest to 2016 is Perot’s 3rd-party performance in the debates of 1992, where he overwhelmingly won the first and third debates, but then only captured a little under 19-percent of the popular vote — his victories during the debates did little to drive his actual performance on Election Day.
Why are debates meaning less and less in modern politics?
Strangely enough, children might hold at least some of the clues.
For instance, the Weekly Reader poll called only one election wrong during its 14 presidential elections of asking kids who was going to win the presidency. Oddly enough, it was 1992 that backfired on them because they did not include Perot as a choice — the election was won by Clinton in a plurality, but the kids picked Bush in the ‘heads-up’ only format they were given.
Sociologically, the explanation for this has often been that children hear their parents discussing politics, and then ‘voted’ a mirror image of what they heard in their own homes.
But there’s a catch — almost all of the Weekly Reader polls were conducted before the debates of the presidential cycle — could it be that adults’ minds are made up long before the debates, something that traditional polling has never really been able to measure?
Unfortunately, Weekly Reader‘s poll did not make it into the digital age, with 2008 being their last presidential poll before selling to Scholastic and turning most content into a digital format. It’s a shame too, because it would have been an incredible case study into how children perceive their parents’ views of elections in the digital age.
It’s the ‘information age’ itself that holds a partial explanation as well.
Before 1960, elections were fought in newspapers, often with long prose being employed to draw in voters.
After 1960, the name of the game became looking and acting presidential in front of the camera — and well landed ‘gotcha’ television ads often became the difference between winning and losing (i.e. The Eisenhower clip of him not recalling any contributions Nixon made as VP, the ‘Daisy’ nuclear holocaust ad of 1964, or even ads capitalizing on George H.W. Bush’s infamous quote, ‘Read my lips, no new taxes.’)
But we are living in a post-television age, an age where the internet and social media are driving and providing people’s needs for information, political outrage, and even outright confirmation bias-based ‘news’ sources.
For those absorbed by politics, they want more than what the debates can provide — they want a steady diet of information, disinformation, and at times outright lies.
The new ‘debate’ platform is held live on Twitter and other social media, with hundreds of thousands of people watching, interacting, and even ‘counteracting’ the various posts from the political figures.
The information age is forcing candidates to be ‘everywhere’ all of the time — their platforms must be clearly available, their ideas and thoughts are roaming through social media, and their supporters are ‘armed’ with their own social media outlets — ready to defend their candidate and attack the opponents at a second’s notice.
Debates will continue to be a feature of American politics, but they are going to have to find new relevance in the digital and information age.
Some relevance might be found by speeding up the debate schedule, holding the first debate right after the national conventions — perhaps before voters’ minds become more set in their choices.
Even more relevance would come from a more inclusive process, one that gives all candidates who have done the legwork to be on enough state ballots the chance to present their ideas.
Regardless, we need to break from the modern status quo — a great debate performance might not help you win, but a really terrible one may finish you off.
America needs ideas and realistic plans, women and men who can transcend politicking to govern as leaders, and presidential candidates who can make their case to the voters and the world.
Until the modern debate formats can provide this to the American voters, we will be stuck in the same 1960s model of debating that is no longer relevant in making or breaking campaigns based on the candidate’s debate performance.