Debates becoming less common, experts say they offer fewer incentives for candidates

Congress moves toward passing Chips Act with support from Michigan senators.
Congress moves toward passing Chips Act with support from Michigan senators.
Published: Sep. 13, 2022 at 8:01 PM CDT
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CEDAR RAPIDS, Iowa (KCRG) - Two political science professors told TV9 there’s a lack of incentives for incumbents or candidates in safe districts to participate in political debates.

Some political races at the top of people’s ballots in Iowa have one or zero televised debates scheduled, as of Tuesday. The strategy isn’t new, like Rep. Abby Finkenhaur only debating then State Rep. Ashley Hinson once in 2020, but has become more common nationally.

For example, Senate candidate and Pennsylvania Lieutenant Governor John Fetterman (D) has faced pressure for not agreeing to debate the Republican Senate candidate Mehmet Oz. Another example is in Georgia where Sen. Reverend Raphael Warnock (D) has put pressure on Republican candidate Herschel Walker to debate.

Tim Hagle, who is a political science professor at the University of Iowa, said political debates increase a challenger’s name recognition and also increase the likelihood for a candidate to make a mistake. He said this makes debates less likely in safe districts because it’s not the best mechanism for a candidate to get their message out to voters.

“The debates just aren’t as popular, as effective, as useful,” Hagle said.

He said more debates are more likely to occur in races, which are more competitive like Iowa’s Third and Second Congressional Districts with two televised debates scheduled as of Monday.

Megan Goldberg, who is a political science professor at Cornell College said debates also create a difficult cost-benefit decision for campaigns. She said not many people watch debates, specifically at the congressional level and those who do watch have likely made up their minds already.

“There’s not a lot of evidence we learn that much from debates in terms of policy content because the people who tend to watch debates are those who know a lot about the candidate and are tuning in to see their candidate win the same way you watch a sports game,” Goldberg said.

This, she said, makes it more likely for a candidate to spend resources, like time, on more controlled and targeted messaging rather than preparing for a televised debate.