The GOP Debate Only Allows The Top 10 Candidates To Participate in The Main Event. Is This A Disservice To Voters?

Myrtle Beach, SC, Orlando, FL August 17, 2015

Asheville, NC CorrespondentIn 2012, the GOP primary debates were a spectacle. A dozen candidates created a debate that was superficial and spectacle-driven. Speaking times were short, questions were shallow, and answers were light on substance. To avoid this, Fox News capped debate entries at 10 for the main event and hosted another debate for other candidates. While voter education was certainly limited by the number of candidates excluded, the limitations of the debate format require this step. The lesson of 2012 is that the debates are meaningful only when the number of candidates doesn’t prevent meaningful exchange of ideas. The addition of a “preliminary” debate prior to the “main event” is an attempt at compromise between inclusion and depth.

Given this limitation, some may question the usefulness of presidential debates in an age of social media. Despite the number of venues in which voters can learn about candidates, debates still serve a unique function. They are the only time that voters can hear candidates speaking directly, in an environment of limited preparation. Debates model the publicity of statecraft, where elected leaders engage in the creation of ideas in an atmosphere of pressure and conflict.

More than that, debates are among the most popular ways for voters to learn more about candidates. The 2008 Presidential debate between Barack Obama and John McCain was televised opposite a playoff baseball game between the Houston Astros and the St. Louis Cardinals. The debate was the more watched event, even in those teams’ home markets. Debates remain an integral part of the democratic process, helping voters make up their minds about which candidates are worthy of their support.

Gastonia, NC Correspondent-When Kennedy and Nixon faced off in the first televised debate and the handsome, polished Democrat got a huge boost thanks to his visual contrast with the homely, sweaty Republican, the age of image politics truly began.  However, thanks to media oversaturation, the pendulum finally seems to be swinging back.

Commentary after the recent Republican face-off centered far more on what the candidates had to say than on how they looked, with Carly Fiorina emerging as the clear winner of the “happy hour” debate during which the seven candidates who didn’t poll highly enough to be in the main event faced off. It’s unlikely she’ll be off-stage for the next big gathering.

Splitting the debate was really the only way the event could be handled.  Trying to wrangle 17 candidates on the same stage during the same event would have been nightmarish, and this way the seven at the bottom of the rankings were able to get their messages out without the Trump steamroller blotting out their light.

With so much being spent by both campaigns and super PACs on campaign commercials, the debates are more important than ever before, being now just about the only way we can hear the candidates address issues without flacks or handlers massaging their messages.  Look at how “Governor Goodhair” Rick Perry’s campaign vanished in a puff of mumbling smoke after his lackluster debate performance in 2012.

The real problem is getting the public to pay attention to the debates. While they used to be nearly mandatory viewing for everyone of voting age, these days you’d be hard-pressed to find anyone under 30 who tuned in.  The mistrust of politicians among the young has grown so virulent that many, it seems, would rather believe bloggers’ analysis of what the candidates said over the words themselves.

Perhaps that pendulum, too, will swing. It is to be hoped.

Prescott Valley, AZ CorrespondentWith a glutted field of Republican candidates running for one coveted spot, narrowing down candidates, who are polling at higher percentages, is one of the few means in the process to determine who will appear on the dais throughout the lengthy GOP debate schedule.

Potential voters were given a chance to view and listen to the entire lineup of 17 GOP candidates through two different debate venues broadcast on the same day, which allowed voters to see and hear the bottom and top tier candidates explain their views and stances on a variety of topics.  The broadcasts gave voters some idea of what these 17 wanted to purvey to voters, but with the time limit allowances for candidate responses (60 second answer sessions and 30 second rebuttals), it was difficult to interpret every candidate’s philosophy and platform, and a number of candidates were purposely ignored in the distribution of questions.  The short and pressure filled type questioning, with more emphasis on debate moderators, created a disservice to the voting public, particularly for those voters with limited access and few outlets to view the candidates and their positions.  A line of questioning that strays from real issues creates confusion, particularly when the questioning is not directed toward substantive topics facing the country.  When personal questioning of candidates is entered into, which did occur with several candidates within the first debate, confusion is immediately infused into the equation, which makes it difficult for voters to decipher between emotional reactions and the facts.

A true debate proceeding is structured to allow candidates to respond to the same questions, which usually concern policy rather than strategizing and moderator bias.  Debates are traditional political fare and when license is taken with their structural makeup, voters are caught off guard and wonder who is in charge.  Television networks, influential moderators, and sponsors, such as Facebook, can undermine the process.  More neutral type venues should be chosen for any debate presentation and moderators should be carefully instructed as to their authority in the process.

As far as debates mattering anymore concerning media influence, the surplus of information through cable outlets, social media and the internet itself all seem to bring an element of confusion and distraction into a televised debate, which inserts further misunderstanding into the equation.  The hundreds of reports, opinions, blogs, comments, and postings that are disseminated on line portray a jumble of information for the weary to wade through, decipher and decide upon.   Maybe the old line debates with fewer participants and straightforward questioning without instant analysis and critiques need to be returned to the direction of the voting public.

Perhaps televised debates will go the way of the dinosaur, but the tradition may die hard with old school politicians and the public.  Voters like their candidates front and center, part of the show, publically involved, answering directly, and personally interactive at a moment’s notice.  The superfluous information from social media and the internet adds to the excitement and anticipated buildup of a candidate, but it most probably won’t supplant the true debate format.

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