The year was 1858. Stephen Douglas was a powerful and popular incumbent Democratic senator, and Abraham Lincoln was the brand-new Republican Party’s candidate challenging him for the seat. Their three-hour events were covered by reporters across the country and attended by over 100,000 people in total. While Douglas ultimately retained his seat, it was Lincoln and his stances on slavery that propelled him to the presidency two years later. Since that time, election debates and press access to candidates have become two of the most important ways voters are able to judge candidates.
I have never participated in an actual political debate, which is probably just as well. I did participate in a couple of candidate forums in 2022, but these were not "debates" because we were unable to pose questions directly to our opposing candidates. In most cases, I cannot see any reason that any of my opponents would want to debate me. As far as they are concerned (and similar to officially recognizing a terrorist state), debating me would accord me a legitimacy that they probably feel that I do not deserve.
"Driven up and down, in circles. Skidding down a road of black ice. Staring in and out of storm windows. Driven to a fool's paradise."
So why should a voter care if a candidate debates or not? Voters have a plethora of social media sites to see where a candidate stands on the issues, right? And they run non-stop commercials on television to either tell their story or bash their opponent, don’t they? (The more affluent ones, anyway.)
To all those questions, yes, but none of those mediums force candidates to answer questions that they want to avoid. In other words, if, as President Joe Biden said in 2022, this is the battle for the soul of our country, shouldn’t candidates be able to show up and take a couple of tough questions? My answer is an absolute "yes", but then, I'm in an obvious minority among political candidates who now operate in a world of far-reaching social media platforms and seemingly bottomless coffers of campaign finance. Those two aspects allow some candidates to skip venues that might expose their weaknesses.
"Driven day and night in circles, spinning like a whirlwind of leaves. Stealing in and out back alleys, driven to another den of thieves."
In my opinion, debates not only increase the candidate's political accountability, but they also provide to the voter with much more detailed information, and give voters access to information that can significantly improve their knowledge as well as increase their level of participation.
Traditionally, both debates and answering tough questions from the press have forced candidates to respond to challenges without the protection of completely controlling the message. When these points of exposure are diminished by a candidate actively avoiding debates or the media, so too are the abilities of voters to more fully appraise the choices before them diminished. Debates give voters the real opportunity to judge a candidate's depth of policy issue and solutions, the ability to respond and lead in real time, and show their ability of being approachable and relatable to everyday folks. When candidates choose to avoid debates and the media, voters are denied these meaningful opportunities, and it puts into question the transparency, trust, and authenticity of those candidates.
"Driven to the margin of error. Driven to the edge of control. Driven to the margin of terror. Driven to the edge of a deep, dark hole."
Both Lincoln and Douglas came into those 1858 debates with advantages and disadvantages. Douglas’ reputation on the stage as both a persuader and an orator was daunting. Lincoln’s voice was high-pitched and bordered on shrill, but it also carried remarkably, and, in the end, it was his words that mattered. Despite losing that race — senators were elected by state legislators at that time — it was Lincoln’s bold statement of the Republican Party’s stance on slavery that propelled him to become a national figure.