Candidate debates have become a tradition in American politics. They often are the only opportunity during an election campaign for voters to get a side-by-side comparison of the major contenders for an elective office.
At their best, debates can reveal candidates' grasp of complex issues, their ability to express ideas, their poise under pressure. Debates can be a measure of leadership and vision.
Nevertheless, voters need to view debates with a critical eye. Debates sometimes can emphasize image over substance. Good debaters are not necessarily better leaders. Voters can carefully follow a candidate debate and still not have the answers to questions of great importance.
Every political debate is the result of a long series of negotiations among the sponsors, the candidates and often the broadcaster. A sponsor's goal may be to give voters the information they need to choose their candidate, a broadcaster's goal may be to attract the largest possible audience; the candidates' goal surely is to increase their chances of winning the election by "winning" the debate.
A few simple tips can make watching the debates a more enlightening experience.
Know the Cast of Characters
As you watch a debate, note who is and who is not included. Are minor party or independent candidates involved? Keep in mind that deciding whom to include in a debate is not always an easy or obvious choice for debate sponsors.
A sponsor may chose to include only major candidates in order to use the time to give voters an opportunity to compare candidates with a realistic chance of winning. Or a sponsor may open the platform to all legally qualified candidates, providing voters with an opportunity to hear more points of view. Major party contenders, however, may refuse to participate in a debate that includes third-party or independent candidates. For any debate, viewers should scrutinize whether the sponsor has a defensible set of criteria-established ahead of time-for including or excluding candidates. Use How to PICK a Candidate as an additional resource.
Identify Debate Strategies
A few early exchanges can usually help voters figure out candidates' debate strategies. Do candidates speak directly to the issues, providing specifics of a plan and presenting new policies and information?
Is a candidate merely protecting a lead in the polls, hoping not to make major mistakes? Does one candidate spend most of the time attacking the opponent rather than explaining his or her own views?
Zero In on Candidates' Positions
How detailed are candidates' policy prescriptions, or are they purposely trying to keep things vague? Are they offering "sound bites" rather than laying out genuine differences in outlook and policy? Are they avoiding questions or just reciting "packaged" prescriptions from standard stump speeches?
Decide What Issues Matter to You
It's unlikely that you will agree with every position any candidate takes across the board. So, listen carefully to the candidates' answers on the issues you care most about. How do the views of different candidates compare with your own views on those issues? Does it sound like those issues are a priority for the candidates? Can you live with their positions on other issues on which you disagree?
Look Beyond Appearances
All of us are influenced in some way by the "presentation" a candidate makes: age, gender, stature, clothes, posture, facial expression, sense of humor. Try to focus your attention on the substance of what each is saying, not just the style.
Rate the Debate
Be aware that your reactions also can be influenced by the way the debate itself plays out. Was the moderator in charge but not obtrusive? Did questioners seem to give one candidate a harder time than the others? Did the time limits help move the event along, or did they tend to stifle real debate? Was the audience a distraction?
Rate the Media Coverage
Almost before the debate is over, media pundits often will declare the "winner" and the "loser." Try to form your own opinion rather than just jumping on the press bandwagon. Does the coverage of the debate jibe with your own impressions? Do the media accounts remind you of important points made in the debate or just highlight "mistakes" or clever quips? Does your local paper reprint a transcript so you can digest the substance free of distractions?
It's Not Over 'Til It's Over
Political debates are one event or series of events in a long campaign season. In picking your candidates, debates can be an important factor, but an informed voter also will want to search out other kinds of information. Read candidates' position papers and speeches. Visit their websites. Watch the television talk shows. Watch candidates' campaign ads and those sponsored by their supporters. When it comes to getting the most out of debates-and the most out of political campaigns-it is up to citizens to demand that candidates run issue-oriented campaigns that offer voters plenty of opportunities to get the information they need. The best way to ensure that candidates listen to voters is to vote on election day. So plan to vote-and plan to take a friend!