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Home > Publications > Quill > More debates better for electoral process


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Friday, March 28, 2008
More debates better for electoral process

Nerissa Young

The 2008 presidential campaign began in late 2006. Someone joked the other day that candidates will soon declare for the 2012 campaign.

An early and protracted campaign season can contribute to voter fatigue. Yet, such a long process can vet candidates more fully before the general election. In a perfect world, it can push voters to the polls. Maybe that’s what happened this year with the extended series of televised debates.

Maybe, just once, the news media got something right — even if some of the debates could have been handled a bit better.

A flood of candidates made for unwieldy stage settings, yet cable and network stations opened the discussions to candidates. Leading into Feb. 1, the presidential candidates on both tickets competed in 15 debates or forums. The first Democratic debate was April 26; the first Republican debate was May 3, according to The American Presidency Project run by John Woolley and Gerhard Peters at the University of California in Santa Barbara.

Debates incorporated YouTube, MySpace and other avenues to bring in voters and viewers. The format departed from standing behind a podium to letting candidates question one another around a table. The only rule was there were no rules.

A CNN story posted after Super Tuesday reported 27 percent voter turnout in the primary contests thus far. Curtis Gans from the Center for the Study of the American Electorate said this primary season is a historic one in terms of voter turnout, especially among young voters.

While the CNN story pointed to 60 percent turnout in the 2004 general election for context, it’s not really accurate to equate primary election numbers with general election numbers. Nearly 30 percent for the first five weeks of the primary season is a strong turnout.

This historic election when the first woman or the first black man will be on the general election ballot has obviously generated some interest. But women and black men have run for president before. What is different is their exposure.

Woolley and Peters’ site lists the debates for previous presidential contests. The only primary debates for the 2000 election were three Republican ones, all before Jan. 1 of that year. The timing suggests they were only for the benefit of Iowa and New Hampshire voters. The only primary debates for 2004 were two Democratic ones, both before Feb. 1.

This year’s debates brought underdog Sen. John McCain back to life and underdog Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee into the spotlight. It also gave Sen. Barack Obama free national exposure long before he had to match Sen. Hillary Clinton dollar for dollar in early voting states.

Super Tuesday didn’t mark the end of the primary season but, rather, the next chapter of it.

Usually, this space is reserved for discussing the ethical sins for which journalists need to atone. And in an election year, a lot of atoning often needs to be done.

Sure, there has been a lot of poll and horse-race coverage, as usual. But there has also been a lot of debate coverage where several candidates had the chance to show themselves. While a majority of voters didn’t line up to support Texas Rep. Ron Paul, polls suggest his wacky uncle persona was popular among debate viewers.

His mere presence allowed him to contribute to the national discussion about where the country should go in the next four years and beyond.

The preamble to the SPJ Code of Ethics says: “Members of the Society of Professional Journalists believe that public enlightenment is the forerunner of justice and the foundation of democracy. The duty of the journalist is to further those ends by seeking truth and providing a fair and comprehensive account of events and issues.”

Voters might not be happy with the party nominees or the person chosen in November, but they honestly can’t say they didn’t know who was running or what the candidates stood for.

The news media need to look at how debates shaped the primary season and replicate that success during the general election cycle. And local journalists should dare to organize different formats for debates in their own communities.

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