So the Democratic National Convention ended with zero surprises last week, and we’re off to the virtual GOP Convention this week which also yielded absolutely no drama (and no endorsements from former Presidents). After Labor Day, we’ve got barely two months before Election Day, and whatever Campaign 2020 is going to be is going to roll in hot and heavy. Will that mean debates? Hard to know.
Each cycle, debates become less and less popular. Up until the end of the 20th century, debates (or forums, as organizers euphemistically call them to entice gun-shy candidates) still seemed to tip the balance of national and even some state and local elections. As technology has made it easier to turn political campaigns into one-way messaging barrages, candidates have more and more reasons to avoid the risk of actually placing themselves in front of voters to answer unscripted questions. Here are the main scenarios for politely declining that invitation:
First, you’re an incumbent with a healthy lead and plenty of money. Why on earth would you open yourself up to an on-camera gaffe, or offer your opponent the opportunity to get their message out? Nah, you’re too far ahead for that. And you really need to fundraise. Better to spend your time and money filming beautiful ads along the bosque and in the mountains talking about a brighter future through unsustainable policies that will meet their fiscal reckoning sometime after you leave office.
Next, you’re an attack candidate who runs on just a few polarizing issues. It’s entirely likely that the moderator or the audience will have questions that have nothing to do with your campaign, like, you know, the economy. That’s just going to get in the way of your ironclad stands on Supreme Court-level issues that have little impact on the office for which you are campaigning. Besides, if you want to interact with the “media” you can just publish your own newspaper and distribute it to voters.
Finally, you are an issues-driven candidate who enjoys interacting with voters. You’ve done your research and you are eager to feed off the energy of an audience. You are all set. Well, except that no one is likely to leave their house in 2020 to attend a debate or forum, or leave Netflix to tune into same; the opportunity for well-organized opponents to pack the audience with spoiler questions; and the impact of any such event with early absentee voting starting the first week of October and early voting two weeks later. It’s hard to justify the effort given the payoff.
Let me switch gears from pundit to voter and ask my neighbors to consider that as our elections have trended to less and less actual contact with our candidates, and the pandemic means close to no contact, perhaps we should demand some dialog this cycle.
We must demand of our candidates that they address the near-term issues that affect us in the next four years, not just the next 40: How will we educate our children from kindergarten through college and how will we pay for it; how will working families keep their jobs and care for their young children; how many more national stimuli are required and how do we wean ourselves off of them?
And voters must look at newspaper interviews and television debates and community forums. The Independent is planning some on local races. If a candidate won’t participate, contact them and ask why. Does your candidate host live online events? Does your candidate make live calls, or recorded ones? Can you reach them through their website or social media? If an incumbent, have they attended committee meetings? Do they hold regular office hours?
If your elected official or candidate is only accessible via their pre-paid, polished one-way messaging, that’s not good enough this year.
Merritt Hamilton Allen is a PR executive and a former Navy officer. She lives amicably with her Democratic husband and Republican mother north of I-40 where they run two head of dog, and two of cat.