The Commission on Presidential Debates was established in 1987 “to ensure, for the benefit of the American electorate, that general election debates between or among the leading candidates for the offices of President and Vice President of the United States are a permanent part of the electoral process,” and has sponsored all the debates since 1988.
Since the commission took the helm, there have been two or three presidential debates each cycle.
For voters, debates matter
Beyond tradition, there is considerable evidence from scholars in communication and political science that debates play important roles in our political system.
Communication scholar Steven Chaffee has shown that debates can influence an individual’s vote choice when one of the candidates is relatively unknown, when many voters are undecided, when the race appears close and when party allegiances are weak.
Communication scholars Mitchell McKinney and Benjamin Warner have empirical findings that show presidential primary debates, where less is known about the candidates, have a much greater influence on vote choice than general election debates. They analyzed surveys of general election and primary debate viewers between 2000 and 2012 and discovered that only 3.5% of general election viewers switched from one candidate to the other, but 35% of primary election viewers changed their candidate preference.
McKinney and Warner also found that debates enhance an individual’s level of confidence in their political knowledge and their tendency to vote.
In the same study, the scholars also demonstrate that debates can reduce a citizen’s political cynicism, measured in part by the levels of trust and confidence they have in politicians.
Given the rich tradition of presidential debates and the strong evidence that they help educate voters, we believe a lack of candidate participation will harm voters.
Academic research demonstrates that if citizens can see Biden and Trump — and their primary rivals — discuss their positions on the debt ceiling and whether they believe the U.S. should continue its support of Ukraine in its war against Russia, candidate answers could inform their electoral decisions, make them more confident that they have the knowledge to vote and decrease their cynicism about politics.
But if candidates won’t take part, voters — and democracy — will be worse off.
Gibbs Knotts is dean of the School of Humanities and Social Sciences at the College of Charleston. Vince Benigni is a professor of strategic communication at the College of Charleston. Through its opinion section, Kansas Reflector works to amplify the voices of people who are affected by public policies or excluded from public debate. Find information, including how to submit your own commentary, here.
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