Opinion: It’s time to rethink the value of presidential primary debates

Opinion: It’s time to rethink the value of presidential primary debates

Televised presidential debates during the general election are viewed as the ultimate candidate showcase. They give voters the opportunity to watch competing worldviews and policy positions clash on America’s most significant political stage. Viewers get to test their assumptions about the candidates in real time.

Voters want to know how a potential commander in chief will perform in the face of adversity, and facing off against the other party’s nominee and hostile moderators is a great test.

But do this cycle’s primary debates provide that same value? There is a fair argument to make that the answer is no.

Because the candidates’ policy positions from either party are often similar, primary debates are much less about policy and overwhelmingly about character and personalities. In the modern era, the best debaters rarely go on to secure the nomination.

Nobody will accuse George W. Bush or Mitt Romney of being debate-club presidents, and John McCain’s performances were often viewed as less than stellar. And yet these men won the GOP nominations in 2000, 2004, 2008 and 2012.

But this is the era of Donald Trump. Primary debates have become about the spectacle: the performative clashes, the personalities and the snappy comebacks, which many believe sealed Trump’s nomination. Clashes between candidates are amplified and played out in the 24-hour news cycle and continuously replayed on social media. Indeed, some political professionals believe debates are no longer about winning the night but, instead, winning the “meme” — creating social media moments that will get shared from voter to voter. This has changed debates, where voters watch candidates take shots at one another rather than informing them about policy or leadership potential.

With the first debate of the 2024 presidential election approaching and spectators preparing for the drama that comes with presidential debates, many are left wondering about the significance.

The first debate of the primary election cycle touts itself as an introductory event for national and regional candidates to the voting audience for the first time. In other cycles, this stage is often where a front-runner may be born or an obvious standout on the stage emerges. However, in 2024, there is already a clear front-runner — Trump.

Although he may not be physically present — “Will he or won’t he” is the most critical debate question and the candidates haven’t even taken the stage — Trump’s influence hangs heavy over the debate stage.

With Trump leaps and bounds ahead of the crowded Republican field, these primary debates are poised to focus on Trump himself and efforts to overtake his lead rather than the Republican platform for the 2024 election. This will further eliminate what little policy conversations may otherwise sneak through the cracks.

Alternative formats — social media, town halls, open forums and direct voter contact — provide candidates with the platforms to bypass structured, time-limited debates and directly address voters. In today’s interconnected world that is defined by evolving communication platforms, voters can access many information sources — news outlets, social media, virtual events and in-person experiences. The controlled environment of a debate is increasingly overshadowed by the real-time interactions offered to candidates by digital platforms.

The decline in the significance of primary election debates cannot be tied to a single instance or example; instead, the proliferation of social media and digital communications provides more direct and unfiltered avenues to reach voters than a crowded debate stage. Further, Trump’s domination in various polls and nearly all news coverage — and the lack of a clear second-place candidate — may be a harbinger of the continued decrease in the significance of primary debates in the 2024 cycle.

Ryan Munce is president and CEO of co/efficient, a polling firm. He wrote this for InsideSources.com. ©2023 Tribune Content Agency.

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