The number of debates between Senate candidates in the tightest contests during the past ten years has decreased. Table 1 shows the total number of discussions held for each Senate race in the top five most competitive states in each of the previous six elections. 2022 is merely the most recent data point in a pattern of declining Senate discussion, not an outlier. This year, only three Senate debates have featured the most competitive race contenders. One explanation could be that campaigns conclude that debates do not help candidates.
In America, partisan beliefs are so entrenched that most voters may no longer care about who has the best ideas. Research indicates that debates may not significantly impact elections. How a lack of debate by candidates harms democracy, like any other institutional norm, must be assessed in a larger political context. Debates have significance as standards and symbols; they contribute to a more informed electorate. They reflect the closing of yet another channel for voter education and the democratic contest of ideas.
Debates are no longer just an electoral rite, they affirm their status as a fundamental democratic standard. The debate stage strips away the laurels candidates may rest on in their non-campaign lives. Debates do this by humanising the candidates and making it harder for campaigns to caricature their competitors. The erosion of U.S. Senate debates does not portend an immediate collapse of the American democracy.
Instead, its extinction weakens the institutional foundations without which democracy becomes dangerously unstable. In today’s hyperpolitical environment, how campaigns and candidates conduct themselves really do matter.
In many of this year’s most competitive Senate contests, candidate debates—long a staple of the American election season—have become infrequent or utterly absent as the U.S. midterm elections draw near. However, 2022 is merely the most recent data point in a pattern of declining Senate discussion, not an outlier. Though such discussions may be a victim of electoral calculations, their declining frequency represents the loss of a crucial democratic institution that fosters principled policy participation and exchange when ideas challenge political discourse.
Senate discussions in 2022: a continuation of a downward trend
The number of debates between Senate candidates in the tightest contests during the past ten years has decreased. The table below shows the total number of discussions held for each Senate race in the top five most competitive states in each of the previous six elections (for more information on the methodology of the analysis, see the explanation below Table 1); it also includes debates that are currently scheduled for Senate races in 2022. The most competitive Senate races regularly featured upwards of 10, and even up to 17, debates per election year as recently as the early 2010s.
Table 1 lists the number of debates held in the top five most heated Senate contests
|Number of Debates per Top 5 Races
That figure has not increased past nine since 2016. Based on preliminary debate schedules as of this writing, there were just seven debates for 2020 and 2022. (or, for 2022, are scheduled to take place).
There is a sizeable year-to-year variance in debate frequency since campaigns decide whether or not to hold debates and how frequently they occur. One movement, either enthusiastic about or opposed to arguments, might distort the totals for any given year. But despite this change, the declining trend continues.It is noteworthy that 2022 keeps up that trend. This year, there will be Senate elections in the top five states where the outcome of the 2020 presidential contest will be most uncertain. When the votes are counted, polls predict that most of these elections will be surprisingly close, and control of the upper house is at stake. However, as of this writing, only three debates have featured the most competitive races’ contenders. (For comparison, general-election candidates in the most competitive Senate seats had already participated in five discussions by this point in the 2020 election campaign, which was by no means a banner year for Senate debates due to COVID-19 provisions.) While some contests without controversy have set dates for their first—and most likely only—discussion of the month, others exhibit no indication of debate life.
Decreased debate attendance—a result of electoral math?
The most straightforward explanation is that more campaigns conclude that debates do not help candidates. Campaign managers, employees, and candidates have only one objective: to win the November election. This is in contrast to theorists and analysts who may view debates—and campaign conduct—in the context of the overall state of democracy (as detailed in the following section). As with a losing campaign slogan or policy stance, arguments may be abandoned if they harm or do not advance that primary goal.
Debates might be more of a liability than a benefit. They could make careless mistakes. Unfavourable quotes or errors from the discussion may be shared on social media after it has concluded. In America, partisan beliefs are so entrenched that most voters may no longer care about the perennial issue that drives every discussion: who has the best ideas.
Furthermore, there is no assurance that a strong debate performance will be advantageous—research and specific surveys indicate that debates may not significantly impact elections. On the other hand, a failure is likely to harm the loser. That constant risk was established during the first presidential debate broadcast on television, Kennedy v. Nixon, in 1960, where the polished Kennedy outshone the green, unwashed Nixon.
There are further electoral factors. For example, incumbents have avoided arguments for over 50 years since their advantages were predetermined. Some candidates lack a glitzy smile, a polished demeanor, and other charms that appeal to the audience. Others acknowledge that their public speaking abilities are lacking or that discussions will probably highlight their shortcomings. Finally, campaigns may not regard the time and resources required for debate preparation as a worthy allocation of their limited resources, given that debate viewership (as a total share of the national television audience) has been declining for decades.
Thus, the most economical explanation for the drop in Senate debate may be electoral calculus. However, this reduction has effects that go beyond elections. It may be shortsighted to exclusively view political developments through electoral concerns in an era of democratic backsliding (and when more and more voters regard dangers to democracy as the nation’s most serious issue). Instead, to understand how the outcome of debates impacts the health of democracy, arguments, like any other institutional norm, must be assessed in a larger political context.
How a lack of debate by candidates harms democracy
Debates have significance as standards and symbols. They contribute to a more informed electorate and highlight principled engagement with policy ideas as the foundation of democracy by bringing candidates together on one stage to present their knowledge of and answers to the topics that voters care about most. They reflect the closing of yet another channel for voter education and the democratic contest of ideas, much like other democratic standards.
Campaign debates bring up policies. They compel candidates to demonstrate their capacity for thought and approach, putting them unquestionably on the record. Candidates are left to the wilds of their knowledge of the relevant problems and their ability to articulate their vision to the listening populace without the benefit of teleprompters or the curation of assistants. The candidates for their representation are directly contrasted in front of the electorate’s eyes.
Debates also contribute to a level playing field in politics. A small-business owner competing against a former governor or a billionaire solidifies the foundational democratic ideal that any citizen may win the privilege to represent their fellow Americans if they have their community’s interests at heart. The debate stage strips away the laurels candidates may rest on in their non-campaign lives. Debates do this by humanising the candidates, which makes it harder for campaigns to caricature their competitors or their ideas as untrue or an existential threat that needs to be met with violence or revolt.
Notably, after debates, voters continue political discourse and education. According to research, people are more likely to discuss politics with their friends and family after viewing a discussion. They claim to have a clearer understanding of the crucial racial issues and want to learn more about the subjects covered. Citizens also think that arguments are significant, even though they cannot always persuade them to change their beliefs.
Thanks to this and other means of transportation, debates are no longer just an electoral rite. They affirm their status as a fundamental democratic standard. Their waning in contests for the U.S. Senate, one of the most influential positions in the country, threatens to expose another crack in the fabric of democracy. And any political activity that forces politicians and voters to interact with each other actively and their rivals’ views should be protected, as institutional norms are already failing under the weight of toxic polarisation.
A democracy that is exclusively motivated by electoral calculations cannot last. Instead, it depends on judgments that support democracy as a whole being occasionally subordinated to pure electoral advantage-seeking. Representatives defying their party line in politically hazardous votes or state legislators voting to appoint impartial commissions to redistrict state and congressional districts are examples of this (albeit less frequently). Such political courage stops the race to the bottom that is being hastened by the worst tribal and hyperpartisan instincts in our politics, or at the absolute least, slows it down.
Although only the decreased frequency of U.S. Senate debates is considered in this research, it is not the only one. It’s conceivable that important statewide races in 2022 will pass without a debate between the contenders for the general election. The Republican National Committee has promised to exclude its candidates from the 2024 presidential debates unless significant—and unlikely—changes are made to the Commission on Presidential Debates regulations, casting further doubt on the future of presidential debates.
The erosion of the Senate debate does not portend an immediate collapse of the American democracy. Instead, its extinction weakens the institutional foundations without which democracy becomes dangerously unstable, as with other uncodified norms; in today’s hyperpolitical environment, how campaigns and candidates conduct themselves matters. They thus serve democracy when they defy convention and engage in debate, a cause they can support while Americans worry about the direction of American politics and government.
Analysis by: Advocacy Unified Network