Presidential Debates 2012: Why Presidential Debates Matter for Democracy

For journalists, political professionals and well-informed citizens, presidential debates seem to be epiphenomenal to the real campaign. We’ve followed the candidates for months. We know where they stand and where their parties stand. We know our own political philosophies and where we believe the country should move. Debates are therefore of only academic importance. We’re like parents watching a high school tournament – win or lose, we’re still taking our kid home. 

Holding such a judgment, we’re likely not only to treat the debates as irrelevant but to believe that others should do so as well. Each candidate, after all, has a website full of policy proposals and a thousand speeches expounding their goals. It is to these resources that voters should look – not to superficial televised exchanges. Debates are nothing more than political theater or opportunities to clip sound bytes.

This view, I want to suggest, misses something essential. Debates play a critical role in political campaigns – and by extension in our democracy. In an era of unlimited political spending and massive campaigns, debates redeem our political process by bringing us back to the oldest and purest form of democratic communication. And that’s a very good thing.

The vast majority of voters in this country are lifetime Republicans or Democrats. Elections are therefore decided primarily by those famously elusive swing voters – a combination of independents and fringe party voters willing to shift allegiance. These swing voters are the major targets for political campaign. For the past six months, this narrow slice of the electorate has been hammered by the full force of the modern election apparatus: campaign advertisements, direct mail, supporter phone calls and primetime speeches. 

Despite the onslaught from both sides, however, many of these voters had withheld judgment. They were waiting for the right moment to tune in. It came a few weeks ago, on the night of the first debate. On that night these undecided citizens – and many millions more — switched on televisions, turned on radios and opened web browsers, shifting their undivided attention to politics. It’s one thing to hear a campaign’s version of the truth, after all, another to watch the clash of ideas in real time. They all saw the same thing. President Obama, who four years ago had so inspired the country, seemed listless. He lacked the passion and the narrative that had swept him into office in 2008. Governor Romney, meanwhile, demonstrated a capacity for presidential leadership – a firm grasp of his position and a willingness to fight for his values. No one reasonably believed that Obama had won the debate. And all of a sudden the polls jumped four points.  

This jump is evidence that debates do matter. I want to argue that they should. By giving such weight to the debates, Americans are following in a long, proud democratic tradition stretching back to ancient times, to the very birth of democracy in Athens. It’s a tradition that took root in our own country during the earliest days of the republic. From New England town hall meetings to the Lincoln-Douglas debates, arguments in the public forum have served an important truth-finding function in our democracy – and present a unique opportunity to voters during the election cycle.

Debates are first and foremost an opportunity to examine the positions of elected officials in conflict with one another – something we believe essential to the pursuit of truth. The theory underlying this faith in debate was perhaps best articulated by John Stuart Mill, who explained how debate – not metaphoric social debates but literal, in-person exchanges – were the best way to uncover error:

Wrong opinions and practices gradually yield to fact and argument: but facts and arguments, to produce any effect on the mind, must be brought before it. Very few facts are able to tell their own story, without comments to bring out their meaning. The whole strength and value, then, of human judgment, depending on the one property, that it can be set right when it is wrong, reliance can be placed on it only when the means of setting it right are kept constantly at hand.

Not only do debates present an opportunity to weight conflicting ideas against one another, they also present an opportunity to directly compare the candidates. Presidential campaigns are not up or down votes on a single candidate; instead, they represent a choice between two options. A reasonable decision between two options can only be made through direct comparison. Talk to a swing voter and the conversation will quickly turn to the relative advantages of the candidates, not their absolute qualities. A debate is a rare opportunity to measure the candidates against one another amid a campaign waged through stump speeches and surrogates.  

Many commentators are quick to point out that debates don’t showcase the “true” candidates. Romney, it is said, misled the public about his platform; Obama, others argue, hedged on his record. This only holds, however, if the “true” candidate is revealed by political platforms. But as every president in historical memory has amply demonstrated, platforms are largely meaningless once in office. What matters are the basic political ideals and values. And these came out clearly in the debates. Romney believes that taxes should be cut and that government can’t create jobs. Obama believes that the rich should pay slightly more and that such funds should be invested in public goods. These are, at his or her core, the essence of each candidate’s respective political philosophy.

The debates reveal one other critical thing. Presidents are first and foremost our leaders. But in a democracy, to lead is to persuade. If the debates didn’t accurately showcase tax policy, they did provide a format to assess Romney and Obama’s ability to convince. The capacity to win a debate, in other words, captures something essential about the capacity to govern in a democracy.

Debates are not only valuable in of themselves, however. They also serve as an important antidote to the poisoning impact of money in our political system.

This election will see political spending of more than $1 billion. A thousand million dollars for campaign staff, field organizers and attack ads. This does not count the many multiples of campaign spending flowing into Super PACs on both sides. Unlike votes, money is an unequally distributed political resources – while every man and woman has equal voting power, they don’t have equal financial power. The role of money in our system therefore gives added weight to the preferences of the wealthy. In so far as political advertising and campaigning swings elections, then, presidential elections are being determined by economic power rather than the democratic process. 

The impact of the debates on the election, however, suggests that political money is not as all-powerful as either candidates or donors believe. For the six months leading up to the election, poll numbers were remarkably consistent. In the week after the election, there was at least a four-point jump. This suggests that voters pay more attention to debates than to advertisements, more attention to the candidates than to their campaigns. Though it happens that in this case the advantage swung to the candidate with more money (Romney), the power of political debates holds promise for the less-moneyed candidates in future campaigns, presidential, congressional or local. 

Which is to say that debates bring us back to the ideals of democracy: the open exchange of ideas, judged by citizens with equal voice in government. May the tradition of debates continue to flourish – and grow.