Full disclosure, right up front — I write this as the Republican co-chair, along with former Democratic state Sen. Scott Howell, of the Utah Debate Commission. I took over that position when former Gov. Olene Walker had to step down for health reasons.
I feel justified in devoting a Deseret News column to the commission’s activities because the paper has one of its executives on it, as does the Salt Lake Tribune and every other major media outlet in Utah. Its board includes representatives from each of the two major parties and all of the state’s major universities. It is as broad-based an effort to increase voter awareness and participation as the state has seen.
Its work begins tomorrow at 6 p.m. in the Shepard Union Building at Weber State University, where there will be a debate between candidates for the 1st Congressional District. Through the following weeks, the commission will stage a series of additional debates between the two major candidates for each of the state’s other congressional districts and state attorney general. Each will be covered live by major media outlets. The format chosen is the same one used by the Presidential Debate Commission, with a moderator selected by the commission and seats in the audience available to the public. The Utah Debate Commission website provides the full schedule and all necessary information.
In order to decide which candidates should be included, the commission conducted a recent poll, listing the names of all candidates who have filed for the respective offices. This was not done to gather any indication of who might win but to determine who had enough basic support to justify being put on stage. The threshold was set at 10 percent. However, since the poll had a margin of error of 4 percent, it was decided that any candidate who polled at 6 percent could qualify.
No minor party candidate reached that level — the poll results are available on the commission’s website — so the debates will involve only major party candidates. This procedure also follows the precedent set by the Presidential Debate Commission, where Ross Perot’s early support was high enough to get him into the national debate but Ralph Nader’s was not.
Many observers say debates don’t matter, and often that is true. But not always. In 1980, Reagan and Carter were in a dead heat until the debate where Reagan asked the viewers his devastating question, “Are you better off than you were four years ago?” Overnight, a close race turned into a landslide. In 2000, after the second Bush-Gore debate, a foreign ambassador who was in the room with me said, “I think Governor Bush just won the election.” That debate may very well have been the winning margin in that closest of races. You never know when a debate will become a game-changer.
Even when they don’t affect the outcome, they can be interesting to watch. In 2012, overnight tracking polls showed Romney moving up dramatically after the first debate and then traced Obama’s recovery after the second and third.
Past debates in Utah have often been hit-and-miss affairs. Often, they take place before an audience whose minds are so firmly made up that real discussion of the issues goes unnoticed. Twice, my opponent sent a substitute at the last minute, leaving me tied down before a relatively small group while he campaigned in a larger venue.
The Utah Debate Commission won’t solve those problems, but it will ensure that there will be at least one debate for each office in each election cycle that is properly structured and widely aired, and that’s a good thing.
Robert Bennett, former U.S. senator from Utah, is a part-time teacher, researcher and lecturer at the University of Utah's Hinckley Institute of Politics.