Monday, October 5, 2015

Musing About Debates

Sometimes readers react to posts on Gossips in an email to me instead of posting a comment. This occurred last week, after I posted the link to the Register-Star story about the finally agreed upon mayoral debates and used the title "And There Shall Be Debates After All." The reader told me that he had read the same story in the Register-Star and had concluded that there would not be debates but just "Q&A with the candidates." Then he lamented, "No Lincoln v. Douglas for Hudson!"

Debate or Q&A? Let's consider the question. David Colby, the president of the Columbia County Chamber of Commerce, who will moderate the debate, has made it clear that the debate will follow the League of Women Voters format. The nonpartisan League of Women Voters sponsored the presidential debates for a decade--in 1976 (Gerald Ford v. Jimmy Carter), 1980 (Carter v. Ronald Reagan), and 1984 (Reagan v. Walter Mondale)--but stopped doing it in 1987 reportedly because the major party candidates (George H. W. Bush and Michael Dukakis) wanted to dictate nearly every aspect of the debates.

According the League of Women Voters, questions and answers are the very definition of a debate. This from "Debate Watching 101" on the LWV website:
A debate is an event at which candidates who are running for an elected office meet face-to-face to answer questions that are asked of them. This gives the candidates a chance to state their views and to respond to their opponents’ statements. It gives viewers a chance to directly compare the candidates and their positions.
The questions can be posed by a single moderator, a panel of journalists and experts, or by members of the audience. The last option, known as the "Town Hall debate," is the format that will be followed when Hamilton and Hallenbeck debate on October 14 and October 28.

The seven debates that took place in 1858 between Abraham Lincoln and Stephen Douglas are often thought of as setting the standard for political debate, so let's consider the format of those. They took place in seven different locations throughout Illinois--in seven of the nine Illinois Congressional Districts. The format for each debate was the same. One of the candidates would speak for an hour. (In four of the seven debates, Douglas went first.) The other candidate would speak for an hour and a half. Then the first candidate had thirty minutes to rebut what his opponent had said.

We should probably be grateful that the Hamilton-Hallenbeck debates will not be following the format of the Lincoln-Douglas debates.


  1. Debates are great in theory. But when has a debate changed the outcome of a Hudson election? In nearly 20 years of following Hudson politics, I can't recall it happening. Sometimes the loser of the debate wins the election.

    For example In 2005, many thought Grandinetti was the more able debater. But Tracy won. Voters are not necessarily looking for the same qualities in a mayor which make a good debater.

    Generally what happens is that the audience consists mainly of each candidates’ partisans, and only a handful of undecideds. The partisans write down leading, slanted questions which the moderator is often forced to read for lack of anything else. Candidates sometimes have prepared, written-down answers for these questions, or read from whatever notes they bring. It’s generally pretty dismal.

    It would be better to have the moderator ask the questions, IMHO, and to disallow the use of notes. But again, for all the heavy breathing over debates each year, I doubt in local elections they carry much weight.

    People tend to vote on personal allegiances, friend recommendations, direct outreach by the candidates (e.g. door to door), general impressions of the candidates' characters, and sometimes (lastly) hot-button issues if there are any.

    1. You left out voting against one candidate by voting for the other as a bunch of us did in the last Hudson mayoral election.