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Can the Debates Be Strengthened?

The televised presidential debates are a success story. At a time when political interest is waning, a debate still has the power to draw tens of millions of viewers to their television sets. A debate also meets the water-cooler test-the next day, millions of people share their impressions of what they saw and heard the night before.


The Commission on Presidential Debates, which is dominated by the major parties, has decided that the debates should be restricted to candidates who have the support of 15% of likely voters in pre-debate polls. Most Americans think otherwise.

A televised debate is more than an event. It is an act of community. For an hour and a half, millions of Americans involve themselves actively in a collective political experience. These moments do not always have a lasting impact. The 1996 debates failed to revitalize a sagging campaign. But the impact sometimes endures. Polls in September of 1992 revealed an electorate whose interest was fading. Analysts predicted that voter turnout would be no higher than in 1988. But the public's outlook changed with the debates and Perot's reentry into the race. Public interest in and satisfaction with the campaign rose dramatically. And as we know, turnout in 1992 turned sharply upward for the first time in three decades.

Although the debates are now nearly an institutionalized feature of the presidential campaign, there are still open questions about them. The most pressing may well be the test that will be applied to participation by third-party or independent candidates. The Commission on Presidential Debates, which is dominated by the major parties, has decided that the debates should be restricted to candidates who have the support of 15% of likely voters in pre-debate polls. Most Americans think otherwise. In our recent poll, 54% of the respondents said that Pat Buchanan and Ralph Nader should have been allowed to participate in this year's debate. Only 29% would have excluded them. These opinions characterize all partisan groupings-Democrats, Republicans, and Independents (see Table 5).

  Table 5: Do you think third-party candidates should be allowed in the debates?
  All Democrats Republicans Independents
Yes 56% 57% 55% 56%
No 29% 27% 31% 30%
Don't know 14% 15% 14% 13%

There is also the issue of whether broadcast networks should be required to carry the debates. FOX has elected not to cover Tuesday's debate, and NBC has made it optional for its affiliates, bowing to pressure after first announcing that it would carry only a major league baseball playoff game. In our poll, respondents approved of NBC's initial decision by a narrow margin (49% to 45%).

The debates are too important to a presidential election to be dependent on the self-interested decisions of the major parties or the broadcast networks, although reasonable people can disagree on exactly which policies should govern the debates. Moreover, the debates need not be the only major opportunity for presidential candidates to speak directly and at length to the American people. Despite its decades-long leadership in the communication field, the United States has lagged in devising television forums that are designed to serve the needs of candidates and voters. In its "Nine Sundays" proposal a decade ago, the Shorenstein Center recommended the adoption of a series of prime-time candidate-centered broadcasts that would include, but not be limited to, debates. The basic principle underlying the proposed series was that the telecasts should be designed to enable the candidates to speak directly to the American people, yet under conditions where they could be immediately held accountable for their statements. As citizens increasingly drift away from the campaign, and as candidates increasingly show up on programs such as the Oprah Winfrey Show, it may be time to revisit the question of whether additional prime-time forums of the type outlined in the "Nine Sundays" report should be added to the television opportunities available to voters during the presidential general election.


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