November 25, 2022

Which political candidates have chosen not to debate in 2022? | KCUR 89.3

Across the country, fewer political candidates take part in the debates than ten years ago. What was once an expectation is now seen by many campaigns as a risk not worth taking.

For Justin Kirk, professor of communication studies and coach at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln debate team, the lack of debate is a symptom of a declining democracy with fewer safeguards that maintain dialogue between politicians and the public.

Engaging in debate, Kirk said, was one of the key points James Madison made when drafting the Constitution.

“The affirmative case for debates begins with this Madisonian principle: that a well-informed public is one of the central operating elements of a democracy,” Kirk said.

The absence of traditional debates comes at a time of high media polarization and fragmentation. The Republican National Committee quit the Commission on Presidential Debates earlier this year, casting doubt on whether there will be presidential debates in 2024. A analysis by FiveThirtyEight shows a downward trend in the frequency of debates in statewide races, with less than half of Senate races having a debate in 2022.

Kirk says there are two main reasons candidates choose not to debate: a lack of confidence or fear.

“I don’t think either of those decisions are good for a politician,” Kirk said. “And I think that shows a fundamental disregard or disrespect for the workings of democracy.”

Complaints made, complaints not answered

In the four states covered by the Midwest Newsroom — Iowa, Kansas, Missouri and Nebraska — congressional candidate debates took place in just 10 of the region’s 19 congressional districts in 2022.

For the United States House of Representatives, candidates chose not to debate in districts that lacked major urban cores such as Nebraska’s 3rd District, Iowa’s 4th District, and Missouri’s 6th District. The 1st District of Kansas and much of Iowa bucked this trend.

In the Nebraska gubernatorial race, Republican Jim Pillen chose not to debate Democrat Carol Blood.

“Jim went out and answered questions from constituents, talked to them, shared his vision directly,” senior adviser Matthew Trail said. Nebraska Public Media in August. “He did this more than any other candidate. He was the most accessible gubernatorial candidate in Nebraska history.

Trail said the Republican’s strategy to avoid debates was decided “on day one.”

Still, Pillen accepted a series of questions and answers sessions with the Nebraska examiner who presented the answers of the two candidates.

In the race for the U.S. Senate seat in Missouri, Attorney General Eric Schmitt was a no-show for a debate hosted by the Missouri Press Association in September. It was only the second time since 1998 that a candidate from a major party did not participate in this forum. Polls suggest that both Pilen and Schmitt are favored to win their races.

Hover over the regions on the map below to see the names of the candidates who did or did not debate in 2022.

The media shares the blame

Debates can easily collapse into the rehashing of stump speeches and personal attacks unless a skilled moderator is able to entice the contestants and push them to make their claims.

“To be fair to the candidates, I think the reason some of them have avoided the debate is that they’ve become you-know-what,” said Kathy Kiely, a journalism professor at the University of Missouri.

“More and more, you see the debates turning into duels of sound sentences.”

Kathy Kiely, journalism professor at the University of Missouri

The declining quality of debates, combined with political coverage of horse racing, reduces the risk of candidates being challenged over their plans and opinions. Having fewer battered journalists who know how to ask the right questions of politicians also makes it harder, Kiely said.

Part of improving debates, she said, depends on debate organizers and moderators encouraging real dialogue. It takes a willingness to pressure a candidate and enforce the rules.

“You need someone who isn’t afraid to tell someone like Donald Trump or someone like Ron DeSantis ‘your time is up, it’s the other person’s turn,'” a said Kirk. If that fails, moderators should be able to mute the mic.

Kirk quoted the 2016 Democratic Party primary debates as an example of good form: Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders debated health and economic policy, allowing them to communicate their differing views to the public.

The first presidential debate 2020 was quite different from those, then-President Donald Trump interrupting Joe Biden and speaking over Chris Wallace.

Modern political debate is light years away from the famous Lincoln-Douglas debates of 1858, when Abraham, Lincoln and Stephen Douglas argued over the expansion of slavery into the new territories of the growing nation. These debates inspired the Lincoln-Douglas debate, the format that Kirk coaches. His team won a national intercollegiate championship in the spring of 2022.

Both Kirk and Kiely have said that more debate and dialogue restores certain norms and civility in politics, but for these to remain, it will take a shift in perspective among polarized citizens, as Kirk put it: ” To see the opposition as the opposition and not the enemy.”

This story comes from the Midwest Newsroom, an investigative journalism collaboration including DPI, KCUR 89.3, Nebraska Public Media News, St. Louis Public Radio and NPR.