Round Up: Do Debates Matter?

This year they might have. Plus: Mike McCurry's biggest regrets, Sherry Turkle's call for online civility, why U.S. debates were popular in Iran, and more.

Global Debates

The Jamaica Debates Commission is holding two local government debates with the Jamaica Labour Party (JLP) and the People’s National Party (PNP) ahead of local elections. A panel of journalists will pose the questions, and the debates will be televised and livestreamed.


Earlier this year, national debates were canceled after the PNP refused to participate over grievances with Andrew Holness, then leader of the opposition Labour Party. The PNP lost the February election, and Holness became prime minister.

In Ghana, the Institute for Economic Affairs (IEA) plans to hold two presidential debates and one vice-presidential debate before the Dec. 7 general election. The IEA released a statement about its partnership with Facebook that will enable the public to “send in questions to be asked at the debates, participate in events surrounding the debates, [and] watch the debates live via Facebook and other social media platforms.”

But President John Mahama may not attend. His party, the National Democratic Congress (NDC), considers the IEA too close to the main opposition party, New Patriotic Party. Mahama has agreed to take part in a debate organized by the state broadcaster, Ghana Broadcasting Corporation.

U.S. Presidential Debates

Mocking the “Great Satan”: The U.S. presidential debates were a hit in Iran, where they aired live, reports Thomas Erdbrink in the New York Times.

“The best way for us to prove that the U.S. government is corrupt and hideous is by showing these people live on our TV,” said Hamidreza Taraghi, a conservative analyst and a regular guest on state television. Debate segments critical of Iran were not fully translated.

Meanwhile, Swedish Foreign Minister Margot Wallstroem expressed concern that the tone of the U.S. presidential debates could have a negative effect on other countries.

“Political climate of the U.S. debates is so bad that I am afraid that it may spread to other states and cultures. Belligerent to women and purely sexist statements, which come from [Republican candidate Donald] Trump, are not acceptable and not worthy for a person striving to become a U.S. president. This gives cause for concern,” said Wallstroem.

Donald Trump and Jeb Bush at the Fox News debate on Aug. 6, 2015

Donald Trump and Jeb Bush during the first Republican primary debate sponsored by FOX News in 2015 / Screenshot: Austin Eubanks

Do Debates Even Matter?: Political scientists have cast doubt on the notion that debates can change an election. This year, as James Fallows explains, there’s reason to believe that they did.

“Please Clap”: What happens when you hold a debate in front of a boisterous audience of thousands? A new study that looks at audience responses during the first two Republican primary debates hosted by FOX News and CNN suggests that all the booing and cheering may have had a lasting influence on the trajectory of the campaign.

Patrick Stewart, an associate professor of political science at the University of Arkansas, worked with graduate students Austin Eubanks and Jason Miller to quantify and analyze audience response.

“At the first debate there were 193 audience events, including applause, laughter-applause, booing or dueling applause-booing events—this was more varied and rambunctious than usual,” Stewart said. “You had an audience of 4,500; it was set up for the public at large, and bigger-than-life personas benefit from that.”

The study appears in the October issue of PS: Political Science & Politics. Eubanks captured the screenshot above of Donald Trump and Jeb Bush during the first Republican primary debate sponsored by FOX News on Aug. 6, 2015, which now feels like a lifetime ago.

Advice for the Commission on Presidential Debates: “If the commission does not ditch debate audiences entirely four years from now, it should at least eliminate the cheering sections,” argues the Washington Post.

We Need to Talk About Donald: MIT professor and author Sherry Turkle, blogging at the London Review of Books blog, shares the advice she gave the CPD about promoting civility online during the presidential debates. An excerpt:

“Technology companies were coming to the commission with ideas: online viewers might see ‘real time questions’ coming in from the national audience; the commission could set up chat rooms where people could discuss and respond to the debate as it unfolded. Did I have ideas about how the commission could protect the debate space?

“I talked with Janet Brown, the commission’s executive director, and her staff about technological possibilities, anonymity and restrictions on devices for the audience. What if the debate wasn’t tweeted from the hall but everyone had a chance to listen without punditry? Would it be possible to have everyone in the audience (except reporters) turn off their phones? Would enforced attention lead to greater civility in the debate hall?

“All of this was interesting, but it would soon take on an air of melancholy and futility. We talked about how to use the internet to enhance the debate, but the internet had already changed what the American public would tolerate in a public forum.”

Read the rest here.

Mike McCurry’s Biggest Regret: “As I look back on the debates, I’m always struck that there are subjects that never quite make it,” CPD Co-Chair Mike McCurry told the Post and Courier. “We didn’t have a good robust debate about poverty in America or hunger in America. We had some discussion of race relations, but thinking of Charleston and the events that have consumed that city, we probably could have had more around that.

“I think the greatest frustration is that there are so many issues that are important to the future of this country and not all of them get addressed in these debates.”

Not So Hot: Media Matters has been keeping a real-time scorecard tracking how often debate moderators or panelists involved with key election debates—presidential and tightly contested Senate and Governor races—asked the candidates about climate change. As of Nov. 7, Media Matters had analyzed 55 debates; 12 of them, less than one-quarter, included questions about climate change.

Memes, Myself and I: Amanda Hess writes in The New York Times about how voters are using digital tools to rework campaign images and gaffes, including memorable debate moments. “It seems likely that debate prep will soon adapt to take memeability into account. One can easily imagine a candidate in 2020 plotting to prepare a ‘shimmy moment’ for the stage,” she writes.

State Debates

Colorado: The television ads were ubiquitous, but incumbent U.S. Sen. Michael Bennet, a Democrat, and Republican challenger Darryl Glenn participated in just one televised debate—a not uncommon occurrence around the country. Bennett turned down several debate opportunities (as incumbents do), while Glenn turned down a debate organized by the Denver Post, reports KUNC

“I think there is a duty above strategy,” said Colorado Public Television’s Dominic Dezzutti, who helps organize debates. “The idea that candidates for a statewide position, to represent the state of Colorado for six years, would consider turning down an opportunity to answer questions with big, large scale media partnerships is astonishing to me.”

Indiana: This is worth mentioning mainly because it caused smiles and appreciative tweets, a rarity this election cycle: A gubernatorial debate between Republican Eric Holcomb and Democrat John Gregg turned humorously awkward when the candidates did the “fist-five,” after the moderator briefly mixed up the two men. 

The IndyStar’s Allison Carter pondered the meaning of it all: “Perhaps Gregg knows that studies show that high fives can increase feelings of camaraderie. Perhaps Holcomb is trying to avoid the germs that can come with high fives and handshakes. Or perhaps it was just an oddly human moment in the largely scripted, staged world of political debates.”

Florida: Republican U.S. Rep. Carlos Curbelo and Democratic challenger Joe Garcia, the former incumbent in the 26th Congressional District, met for their third and final debate last week. The debate was conducted entirely in Spanish and aired live on Spanish-language America TeVe.

Also of note, the moderator, TV news personality Pedro Sevcec, included “man-on-the-street questions”—videos of people asking questions—“about what the candidates would do to boost jobs and maintain American values.”

Louisiana: Six U.S. Senate candidates—including former Ku Klux Klan grand wizard David Duke—were on stage last week for a final debate at Dillard University in New Orleans, a historically black college, setting off protests.

The participation threshold was set at 5 percent support, a practice used in past debates by Raycom Media’s Louisiana stations. Debate rules released before the poll results were known called for a closed set and no audience.

“The inclusion of an audience adds a logistical layer to the production that could not be readily accommodated,” said Raycom’s Vicki Zimmerman.

Minnesota: We’ve seen a number of debate organizers this year take questions in advance or during debates from social media, with some even promoting email or phone numbers to call. And many debates were livestreamed in addition to being broadcast on television. Pioneer Public Television did all of the above for Minnesota House and Senate debates—and then organized all of the debates on one page for easy viewing.

New Hampshire: After making its mark in the presidential debates, Open Debate Coalition teamed up with NH1 News Network to solicit questions from the public for U.S. Senate and gubernatorial debates at the end of October. More than 127,000 votes were cast at

“Several of the issues raised by the public in the Open Debate Coalition’s submission and voting process were questions our news team never would have thought of ourselves,” said Robb Atkinson, senior vice president of NH1 News Network. “For example, the opioid epidemic is discussed regularly in political debates here in New Hampshire, but this question from Bridget B. in Portsmouth, NH, gave a fresh perspective that more directly addresses the day-to-day concerns of voters: ‘What will you do to make it easier for people in recovery to get jobs?’”

New York: Peering back the curtain, Jessica Reinis of Charter Communications interviews NY1 political anchor Errol Louis and TWC News political anchor Liz Benjamin on what it takes to moderate a debate. Louis and Benjamin were co-moderators for the only debate between U.S. Sen. Charles Schumer and his Republican opponent, Wendy Long.