Have you heard? Skipping debates is the new summer trend. Jeff Gray, a candidate for Utah County Attorney General, said that he would not participate in a debate organized by the ACLU because the organization is ‘too liberal.’ In early June, Mike Lee’s two strongest opponents stood on a debate stage without the incumbent standing beside them. Burgess Owens proved to be the worst of all, rejecting debate and forum invitations from the Utah Debate Commission, Utah Republican Party, Mormon Women for Ethical Government, and Gary R. Herbert Institute for Public Policy.
Of course, participating in debates invites more risk than reward, especially for incumbents, but there’s a reason that debates have been deemed a critical component of the American election process. Discourse is good for democracy. The Utah Debate Commission had it right when it wrote that its purpose is to “educate voters about viable candidates and their issue positions, promote a civil exchange of ideas among the leading candidates and elevate the discussion of the most important issues confronting the State of Utah.” The commission aims to regularize independent debates during each election cycle to avoid the influence of campaign or party organizations. It is patterned after the Presidential Debate Commission and has been studied by other states seeking to establish similar organizations.
Unfortunately, in May 2022, the Utah Republican Party made it known that they were breaking from the Utah Debate Commission, stating that they were unable to make an agreement to co-host debates. Utah GOP Chair Carson Jorgensen explained that they tried and failed to “come to a consensus on some kind of agreement that we can work out to give all of our candidates a fair shake and make sure that it’s fair for us Republicans.” The state GOP announced that it would sponsor its own debates and let the candidates decide whether to participate in those organized by the independent Utah Debate Commission. This set in motion the series of declined debate invitations that inspired this article, which argues that debates are good for democracy.
Even with the increased digital accessibility of candidates, formal debates are decidedly influential. After surveys of presidential election cycles since 1988, Pew Research Center reported that three-fifths or more of voters say debates have been very or somewhat helpful in deciding which candidate to vote for.
Generally, the debate stage allows voters to see the candidate in a different light. The format permits the kinds of interactions that don’t happen in other campaign contexts. Debaters are forced to move away from stump speeches and toward substantive answers to challenging questions. The Los Angeles Times Editorial Board wrote “In the era of multimillion-dollar campaigns and slick political messaging, nothing beats the potential of old-school debates to reveal and humanize the men and women behind the glossy ads and focus-group-approved slogans.” This setting is one of the best opportunities to learn if a candidate reflects your concerns and values – where constituents can follow arguments, expose inconsistencies, and hold politicians to account in real time.
To understand how this phenomenon became local, we first have to take a look at the federal stage. Presidential debates had been held in every election cycle since Nixon until Donald Trump entered the picture. In 2016, he opted out of the final debate before the Iowa caucuses. Four years later, then-President Trump declined the invitation to participate in a virtual debate with Democratic candidate Joe Biden. The excuses he fed to his base served his political narrative, ranging from the liberal leaning of the media to the partisan agendas of organizers.
Donald Trump normalized attacks on debates as a democratic service and the Republican Party rushed to raise questions about the legitimacy of a time-honored political practice. In April 2022, the RNC voted to leave the bipartisan Commission on Presidential Debates, citing a perceived bias and the Committee’s refusal to enact reforms demanded by the GOP. This brings us back to the Utah GOP, which followed suit in true party fashion.
Empty podiums and unanswered questions cannot be our new normal. If continued, the practice of declining debate invitations has the potential to negatively impact our nation. When candidates prioritize partisanship over public discourse by avoiding the spotlight, we must make a point to shine a spotlight on them. Utah’s elected officials need to be sent the message that, here in the Beehive state, all are expected to come to the debate stage and argue their case before constituents. You can use Better Utah’s Contact Your Rep tool to stand up for deliberative democracy today.