Televised presidential debates serve most voters better than any other campaign communication device that attempts to present both the candidates personalities and their positions on issues.Criticized by many political observers for emphasizing style over substance, marking mistakes as more important than meaning, aggrandizing the press, and having little to do with "being" president, debates are often held to ridicule rather than thought of as furthering democratic ideals, which in fact they do.
The evidence from many studies of televised presidential debates is compelling. Even with their defects, debates involve the electorate.
- Want presidential candidates to debate (55-75 percent in polls since 1960)
- Compare and weigh what the candidates say about issues (In 1976, what did Gerald Ford "mean" about Eastern Europe being free from Russian domination?)
- Make judgments about "who won" (immediate voter reaction gave that 1976 debate to Ford)
- Follow pre- and post-debate media reports (sometimes voters change their minds as they did when they concluded 12 to 48 hours after that second debate in 1976 that Jimmy Carter was the victor)
- Form and alter images of candidates in part based on their debate performances (Richard Nixon, 1960, learned not to underestimate television debate viewers)
- Often have a need to make up their minds just at the time the debates are held (Public opinion in recent elections indicated that voter support for candidates was volatile, shifting back and forth from one candidate to another right before the debates)
- Use the debates to judge the competence of candidates to lead and conduct the affairs of the nation
These results are found in studies of televised presidential debates in election years despite varying political circumstances. The otherwise largely passive electorate is far better off with debates than without them.
Without them, most voters "rely" on the campaigns' television commercials and the nightly network newscasts, sadly learning less about the candidates from the news than from the ads.
With debates, the nation turns its attention to a formal political ceremony. Televised debates mobilize all campaign elements: candidates, campaign experts, pollsters, media, and the electorate.
Voters watch some or all of the debates (almost 90 percent of television sets in use in 1960 and 1976 were tuned to the debates), read about them afterwards, discuss them with others at work and at home, and often use them to make up their minds. In short, voters become activated.
Nixon largely attributed his defeat to the 1960 debate format. Carter and Ford believe that debates in 1976 were vital to their campaigns. Reagan has consistently been a debate advocate.
This election's wrangling over debates among sponsors and candidates has been concluded. Bush-Dukakis and Bentsen-Quayle will debate on television in the next several weeks. The electorate will view and vote.
The League of Women Voters touted their 1984 Kansas City debate between Reagan and Mondale as "a celebration of American democracy."
The Commission on Presidential Debates calls their sponsorship "a new spirit in American politics."
Whatever you call them, with all their imperfections, they command voters' attention and reflection.
(Sidney Kraus is professor of communication at Cleveland State University. His third book on debates, "Televised Presidential Debates and Public Policy" was published last month by Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, Hillsdale, N.J.)