The BDN Editorial Board operates independently from the newsroom, and does not set policies or contribute to reporting or editing articles elsewhere in the newspaper or on bangordailynews.com.
For an hour and a half, former Vice President Joe Biden and President Donald Trump traded insults, spoke over one another and dodged questions from one another and moderator Chris Wallace.
To be clear, the president did most of the interrupting, insulting and lying. Biden certainly shouldn’t have told Trump to “shut up” or called him a “clown,” but above all, the debate showcased Trump’s belligerent and bullying behavior.
These things should not be new to anyone who has watched the president for the last four years. Despite claiming to be the president of “law and order,” Trump continues to ignore rules and create chaos.
A similar thing happened on a smaller scale in the U.S. Senate debates in Maine. In the first debate on Sept. 11, Independent candidate Max Linn refused to answer the questions that were asked by moderators and proceeded to launch infomercial-style plugs of himself, his website and a lawsuit he filed against a proposed power line corridor.
“Request denied,” he said on two occasions when he was asked to answer the question that had been asked.
At a debate last week, Linn cut up face masks to protest coronavirus-related restrictions and called Republican incumbent Sen. Susan Collins and Democratic Maine House Speaker Sara Gideon “weak women.” Independent and teacher Lisa Savage was also on the stage.
Such theatrics and outburst detract from real debates over issues and policies, which led us to wonder if political debates have outlived their usefulness.
At a time when hostility and theatrics are too often prioritized over accuracy in our political discourse, do debates make a difference? Do they help voters make a decision? And, are they worth the “annoying” theatrics?
Research has found that debates do impact some voters, but don’t make a big difference in how people vote.
“In general, the first debate tends to have more of an impact than subsequent debates and even then the impacts are modest. We might see a slight post-debate ‘bump’ if a candidate really under-performs in a debate, but it’s not anything huge,” Rob Glover, an assistant professor of political science at the University of Maine, told the BDN.
He added that viewers typically rate the debates as more valuable sources of information in deciding who to vote for than campaign ads, for example. We’d note that, especially this year, being more valuable than campaign ads is a pretty low bar to cross.
Michael Socolow, an associate professor of communication and journalism at the University of Maine, agrees that debates remain useful. The issue is ensuring candidates follow the rules of a debate and, on Tuesday, that was a problem that rested with the president.
“My take is that what happened last night isn’t an issue of functionality with the debates. Last night was entirely about one person seeking to disobey the rules everyone agreed to,” Socolow told the BDN. “So my take on the issue would be more simple: Exceptional circumstances require exceptional rules. There needs to be new parameters for debates involving Donald Trump.”
So, it is encouraging — and necessary — that the Commission on Presidential Debates is considering changes to its plans and procedures for future debates, including the option of turning off microphones if participants don’t follow the ground rules. Trump has balked at possible changes.
Socolow proposes other formats, such as having the candidates question one another, holding a debate with both candidates and their running mates participating at the same time or having moderators read questions from audience members. This town hall-style format was slated to be used for the next debate on Oct. 15. The president’s diagnosis with coronavirus will likely change the debate schedule and perhaps the format.
Whatever the format, it is clear that changes are needed to keep debates civil and informational. And it’s also clear that the candidates themselves are responsible for maintaining a basic respect for the rules and for an orderly process.
We shouldn’t be quick to throw out the entire debate process when candidates decide not to follow the rules. That says more about them then it does about the process.