Welcome to Week 2 of the Bowdoin Globalist’s 2016 Election Blog. This week, we’ll consider the relevance of debates in their present format in the context of modern technology and media coverage.
We’ve seen two Republican debates so far, and the scene could not be more striking: more than a dozen candidates lined up in a row who, except for the initial handshakes all around and the occasional fraternal back-slap, seemed to detest each other. Each struggled to wrestle talk time away from the man at the center of it all, Donald Trump, who didn’t seem compelled to introduce himself to the voters or define himself as a candidate. While other candidates attempted to throw in mentions of children, God, and decades-long marriages in efforts to draw more comprehensive pictures of themselves, Trump’s performance was singular in how it told viewers little they didn’t already know. Of course, this may reveal some of his many weaknesses as a viable candidate, but the contrast between Trump’s efforts and those of his competitors reveals that perhaps, debates are no longer the important opportunity they used to be. The candidates in the Republican debates who tried the hardest were the ones with the lowest polling numbers— how can we forget the terribly earnest performances of the candidates in the “kid’s table” debate?
Turning our attention to the Democratic debate reveals a similar phenomenon. Jim Webb’s angry bid for more time and Chafee’s attempts to shine contrasted with Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders’ relatively cool and genial performances. A few weeks later, both Webb and Chafee have dropped out of the race, while both Clinton and Sanders claim that they’ve earned a “win.” While the Republican and Democratic debates vary widely in style, tone, and just plain size, the Democratic debate still shows how relatively little is at stake for a viable candidate.
In this age of modern technology, is the role of the debate obsolete in spreading relevant information to a curious voter? Does it merely serve to magnify the importance of Hail Mary candidacies with short shelf lives? When televised debates were first introduced, the public had few other ways of hearing about a candidate. Voters could rely only on the debates, the radio, stump speeches, and personal interactions to form their opinions: the readily accessible round-the-clock coverage that now follows candidates with some support did not exist. Debates were most important when they gave voters a fresh new insight into what a candidate believed in, how he articulated his thoughts, and even what he looked like and how he carried himself— for candidates then were always men. Now, a candidate with popular support has followers Facebook, Instagram, Snapchat, and Twitter to spread his message, not to mention the political pundits waiting for his every word.
While one can certainly argue that ratings for this cycle’s debates have been high, debate coverage has been exceedingly complete, and innumerable articles and commentaries (including this one) have sprung from the debates, has any important new information been revealed for voters? If anything, the punditry that surrounds these debates has only served to reinforce and regurgitate the images and reputations candidates already have: we already know that Donald Trump blusters and rants his way through the campaign, that Ted Cruz is a formulaic debater, that Bernie Sanders is a democratic socialist, that John Kasich wants to be seen as the normal one. News sources have only exacerbated these images in their debate coverage, but no new information that would actually aid voters in making a choice has emerged. The role of the debate is to introduce candidates to the constituency and give them a forum through which to present some of their ideas, but there are other opportunities for voters to do so now.
As voters begin to receive information directly from candidates, debates in their present format have become vehicles for mud-slinging, and they encourage candidates to race to the extreme ends of the political spectrum. This makes them less useful to the electorate at large and more of a show to party stalwarts, who don’t need to be convinced. It’s time to search for a way to compare our candidates.