Let's get beyond debating debates

Photo by Chris Carlson

Ah, political debates. They burn a lot of candidate, campaign and media time and energy, but in Texas they rarely make a difference in statewide races. Debates can, however, provide real insight into candidates’ personality, temperament and preparation, which are all relevant to performance in office. 

First, what doesn’t matter: the perennial debate about debates leading up to debates. Everyone knows that trailing and minor candidates want more debates to gain exposure and hope for an opponent fumble. Leading candidates want fewer or none. The resulting debate debate is a ridiculous exercise, filling lots of newspaper column inches, websites and TV news blocks while allowing everyone to avoid talking about actual positions, policies and records.

Debates are best conducted and most relevant when voters are paying attention — i.e., after Labor Day and closer to voting time. By then, campaign platforms are mostly laid out, political organizations are running full speed, the issue landscape is largely set and the TV ads are underway. That's when voters start paying attention and debates matter.

In my experience, the number of debates is directly proportional to their silliness and shrillness, as witnessed by the 20 or so 2012 GOP presidential primary debates.

Twenty presidential debates make a bad reality TV series, not a political process.  

Texas history shows that one or two debates in a Texas governor’s race are more than adequate to inform voters. Texans saw just one general election governor’s debate in 1994 and 1998, two in 2002 and one in 2006. In 2010, there were no gubernatorial debates in the general election, but nearly 5 million Texans felt informed and motivated enough to go to the polls. 

Debate organizers need to be tough, firm and fair. Campaign operatives will seek every advantage and will not hesitate to bully, scream, jump up and down and hold their breath if things aren’t going their way. Vanity and insecurities become apparent, as candidates demand risers to offset height disadvantages or particular camera angles to enhance a “good side.” 

This year’s gubernatorial debate negotiations will be unprecedented in at least one regard, as Attorney General Greg Abbott uses a wheelchair after an oak tree fell on him while he was jogging in 1984. That fact will have a major impact on debate staging and sensitivities.

Any signs of weakness or waffling by debate organizers once rules are agreed upon and set is an invitation for mischief and pain.

Organizers should also remember that debates are meant to serve voters, not candidates or even the news media. Tight question and answer time limits are largely inconsistent with the informational purpose of debates. Do we really expect a candidate to address specifics of tax policy, the ethics of third-trimester abortions, or the pros and cons of Medicaid expansion in 30 seconds? 

The makeup of debate questioners is critical. As the 2012 presidential primary debates demonstrated, the news media is often out of touch with the concerns of voters. Including real people in the debate question process can be useful and informative. Candidate-to-candidate questions rarely inform policy but offer ample opportunity for humor, unscripted exchanges or off-putting anger from the questioner or respondent.

After all the jockeying, carping and negotiating, it’s time to actually debate. The candidate and campaign’s time is best spent on debate issues and tactic preparation. Debate format matters, but performance matters much more.

Twenty-four hours or more before the debate, the policy cramming and preparation should end and candidates be sent off to relax and reboot. What voters most often remember about debates is not a particular policy initiative but a personality trait.  Fatigue and stress can change personality and performance for the worse. 

Debates can offer insight into the character of the men and women seeking office. Do they do their homework? Are they over-prepared or too scripted? Are they thin-skinned or hotheaded? Do they have a sense of humor? Are they able to quickly react and recover from an attack or a mistake? 

These human traits are more important to job performance than debate sound bites. Even one debate can offer rare and relevant glimpses inside even the most scripted and polished candidates.     

Ray Sullivan

Political consultant