The Chronicle Gambia

How Debate Culture Is Entrenched In U.S Politics Though Not a Legal Obligation

This October 7th is another scintillating exchange of ideas between two American politicians, one of whom, in less than 30 days, will become the second most powerful person in the world. Senator Kamala Harris, the running mate of the Democrat’s nominee Joe Biden will challenge the Republican and the current Vice President Mike Pence as the race for White House intensifies. But given the tense nature of Democratic-Republican encounters, particularly last month’s presidential debate which turned confrontational, one wonders why candidates remained in such hard-battles even though they reserve the right to stay away since there’s no law forcing them to do it.

It has happened in the past that candidates invoked their rights not to participate in a debate after realizing that an opponent could weaken and destroy political capital and ambitions. For instance, in 1960, Vice President Richard Milhous Nixon agreed to debate John F. Kennedy ahead of the polls. They both believed that debate would be to their political advantage considering they would each be known better by voters. But the debates helped Kennedy. Later candidates who perceived themselves as the front-runner (Lyndon Johnson, 1964, Nixon, 1968, 1972 refused to participate in the debates. The presidential debate restarted in the U.S in the 1967 election between Governor Jimmy Carter and President Gerald Rudolph Ford Jr. as both recognized that debates were a means of educating the public.

“There is no election law or other rules that require or force candidates to debate. Such a requirement would be seen as a violation of our “free speech” constitutional rights, even for candidates seeking the presidency — that they cannot be forced to debate their opponent,” said Dr. Mitchell S. McKinney, Professor Department of Communications, University of Missouri.

He said that candidates in the U.S. seeking the presidency, and certainly the major party candidates such as the Republican and Democratic party presidential nominees, are not required to debate.

Dr. Mitchell S. McKinney, Professor Department of Communications, University of Missouri

Yet, candidates would not refuse to debate, why?

While there’s no law conditioning candidates to debate each other, it has become so traditional in US politics that aspirants can’t disregard it and stay in shape. “It has become part of the expectation that candidates will engage in these debates such that anyone who refuses would be criticized. Often times in our democracy, activities or institutions respond to what the public expects and occur even though they are not required by law,” says Joel K. Goldstein, the Vincent C. Immel Professor of Law Emeritus, Saint Louis University School of Law.

Like Goldstein views it, Mitchell will be surprised to see any candidates in the present generation to skip debates at will due to public pressure. “I guess if one of the candidates decided to leave the stage in the middle of a debate as they say “the show must go on.” This would be quite dramatic.

He stated that debates mostly reinforce the choice of candidates’ individuals are already supporting but a small number of “undecided” viewers do use the debate to make their candidate choice. In a race that is close, this small number can be consequential in the outcome of the election,’ Mitchell told journalists covering the U.S 2020 election.

Most debate viewers use the debates to make assessments of the candidates’ character, image or temperament or fitness for office, rather than actually learning about the candidates’ issue positions. While issue learning does take place, the debates — their “performative” nature for the candidates as they interact with each other, attack one another and respond to attacks — highlight candidate image and character.”

According to a survey done by the political communication Institute of University of Missouri, debates serve voters as a “focal point” of the long campaign . . ., the only moment to compare candidates, side-by-side, under equal conditions, voters point to the debates as the most credible and useful of all forms of campaign communication.

PCI (University of Missouri)

The research findings also discovered that debates generate the greatest amount of media coverage and therefore public attention to the ongoing campaign (news media, social media, entertainment media, etc.) as well as generate more citizen-to-citizen discussion than any other single campaign event.

US Vice President Mike Pence speaks about the creation of a new branch of the military, Space Force, at the Pentagon in Washington, DC (Photo credit SAUL LOEB/AFP/Getty Images)

Vice presidential debate 2020

Tomorrow is the face-off between Harris Kamala, running mate to the democrat’s nominee Joe Biden and Vice President Mike Pence between 1am and 2:30am GMT. It will take place at the University of Utah, a public research university. This particular debate will be held under a new safety atmosphere following Donald Trump’s diagnosis of coronavirus. As such, instead of 7feets between candidates, it will now be 12feets apart with a plexiglass barrier between them like with the moderator.

What will they discuss?

“I would expect the VP debate to address many of the same issues as the presidential debate. Certainly, the government’s response to the coronavirus pandemic, the Supreme Court nomination of Judge Barrett and its possible effect on American life, the economy, issues relating to racial justice and law and order, health care, and climate change may be among the topics discussed,” said professor Joel K. Goldstein, Vincent C. Immel.

According to him, the inclusion of the VP debate allows voters to consider them in deciding their votes, as it presents two different national figures discussing the important issues. he said the debate also reflects the realization that the VP candidate who is elected will be a heartbeat away, will provide important assistance as VP, will be an important participant on the national stage in discussing issues, and will be a prominent figure in presidential politics in the future.

What characters are they?

The recent presidential debate between President Trump and former Vice President Joe Biden was a highly charged one, and some condemned the extent of confrontations it brought about leading to personal attacks. Trump was found to have done more unnecessary interruptions killing the spirits of the debate. Goldstein believes that Vice President Pence is a different figure to his immediate boss.

Joel K. Goldstein, the Vincent C. Immel Professor of Law Emeritus, Saint Louis University School of Law

“VP Pence has a different rhetorical style than President Trump and I would expect that to be reflected in the debate,” emphasizing that VP Pence and Senator Harris have both shown themselves to be effective communicators and their views on many issues differ.

Goldstein said Vice President Pence has been an active campaigner for President Trump and has strong relations with social conservatives and evangelicals who are important parts of the Republican base.

“In addition to his ability as a spokesperson for the Trump administration, he may be effective in outreach to such voters. Senator Harris is also known as an effective campaigner who may help energize women, African American, and younger voters to support the Biden-Harris ticket.”



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