'Superdebate' Rises as New Phenomenon In US Politics

When Massachusetts Gov. William Weld and US Sen. John Kerry step up to their podiums tonight, a half million viewers are expected to tune in to the debate.

It is an unusual number, given that this is the barbecue season and the election is still four months away. It is also the third encounter already between the two candidates for the US Senate.

Yet the degree of public interest, and the number of face-offs, is emblematic of a growing trend in American politics: the debate.

Fed up with sound-bite campaigns, voters are increasingly demanding that their politicians meet in podium-to-podium encounters - often multiple ones. The result, experts say, is often a more energized electorate, though they caution that not all debates are illuminating.

"In general, there is a growing trend toward placing more emphasis on debates," says Diana Carlin, associate professor of communication studies at the University of Kansas in Lawrence and a consultant for the Commission on Presidential Debates.

In the Kerry-Weld match, for example, the two candidates have agreed to an unprecedented seven televised debates.

Though no one tracks the number of all debates nationwide, state and local election-watchers point to an increase in the number of multiple encounters:

*In the 1995 San Francisco mayoral race, the three top contenders took part in more than 70 debates citywide. While the city has a long debate tradition, the number of meetings was high even for San Francisco, which partly reflected the closeness of the contest, won by Willie Brown.

*In last fall's gubernatorial elections in Kentucky, candidates squared off 35 times. A new campaign-finance law required candidates who accepted state funds to appear in two televised debates. But the new law's spending limit kept candidates from airing political advertisements and pushed them to participate in many more than the law required.

*In Maine's most recent gubernatorial contest, the candidates took part in almost 30 debates or candidate forums. During the past eight years, says a state Democratic Party spokesman, the number of debates has been steadily growing because an increasing number of organizations - media outlets, special-interest groups, and community coalitions - are sponsoring them.

"Candidates are responding to some public demand that campaigns be more than 30-second spots," says Curtis Gans, director of the Committee for Study of the American Electorate in Washington.

Hosting debates is almost universally heralded as way to improve democracy. Debates prevent candidates from shaping their entire campaigns around TV ads, says Mr. Gans. A large number of debates also can reinvigorate the electorate and increase voter turnout, Ms. Carlin says.

In the Kentucky governor's race last fall, 850,000 voters were expected to show up at the polls but almost twice that many did, reversing a 20-year slide in voter turnout, says Kim Geveden, political director of the Kentucky Democratic Party.

In Massachusetts, more than 1 million people watched the first Weld-Kerry debate in April.

"One might speculate from that that the public is hungry for substance," says Walter Robinson, assistant managing editor for local news at The Boston Globe, co-sponsor of the debate series. "Debates are a great antidote for what the political culture usually serves up."

But others say that debates, though rising in number, still don't affect the political process as much as they could.

"Debates are a wonderful thing, but who's covering them?" asks Gans. If local TV stations refuse to air debates at all, or broadcast them at a time when people are not likely to watch, then the debate attendees alone gain from the opportunity to glean unfiltered information about the candidates.

Some say, too, that the quality of debates has not kept up with the jump in their numbers. In Racine, Wis., five candidate forums were held for a special election that took place last month, but citizen activist Elizabeth Erven says the political discourse that took place was rote. Candidates answer the same questions at these forums year after year, she says, so much so that the political parties save candidates' answers and hand them to next year's crop of election hopefuls. "There hasn't been a debate here for the last 20 years. It's just show and tell," Ms. Erven says.

Most agree, though, that during the past 35 years - since the first modern-era presidential debate in 1960 - debates have become an ingrained part of the political process.

"Debates have generated their own momentum so that, as in the 19th century, candidates are reluctant to decline a debate invitation," says David Zarefsky, dean of the school of speech at Northwestern University in Evanston, Ill., and part of the team for the PBS series on the Lincoln-Douglas debates.

The role of debates is also growing as the face-offs become more established. This year the Commission on Presidential Debates is encouraging citizens to watch presidential debates together in a public setting and discuss them afterward. Public responses will be faxed to the commission, compiled, and then made public 36 hours after each debate.

"This has the potential to turn debates very much into a two-way conversation," says Janet Brown, executive director of the commission. The bipartisan Commission on Presidential Debates has scheduled and organized debates for the past two presidential elections.

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