In 1960, Richard Nixon and John Kennedy met in the nation’s first-ever televised presidential debate. Nixon was the sitting vice president under Dwight Eisenhower, who was term-limited and leaving office. Nixon was considered a brilliant politician, but sometimes socially awkward.
The day of the event, Nixon didn’t feel well. According to later reports, just prior to the debate, he reinjured a balky knee. And, of course, Nixon uncomfortably perspired throughout the televised coverage.
Radio listeners felt Nixon won the debate, yet TV viewers gave the nod to the suave, handsome Kennedy.
In the years since, many debates are nothing more than bluster or made-for-TV drama.
Do political debates, then, really matter?
We believe yes, and invite readers to watch this evening (May 14) as three candidates for mayor of Grand Forks meet in a live debate to be broadcast on the Herald’s website, grandforksherald.com. The event begins at 6:30 p.m.
Participating will be the three candidates who appear on the ballot: Brandon Bochenski, Mike Brown and Robin David. Brown is the incumbent.
The event, to be moderated by the Herald, will feature nine questions and offer each candidate a minute to answer. After all have answered a question, each will be offered another 30 seconds for rebuttal.
The second part – rebuttals – is the key to any debate. It’s not an apparatus intended to encourage argument or political fireworks, but instead meant to encourage a dialogue that will help us, and you, better understand the candidates’ experiences, their planned initiatives and their beliefs.
Not everyone believes in the merits of political debate. A piece written by Denise-Marie Ordway and John Wihbey, for a website called Journalist’s Resource, notes that presidential debates, for instance, “do not typically have dramatic effects on voters.”
The authors note that “though reporters often look for a winner and loser, viewers experience the debate differently, making two simultaneous judgments: One, whether or not the candidate seems ‘big enough’ to be president; and two, whether one of the candidates is a better choice.”
They write that a noteworthy area of potential impact in debates is “agenda setting” – or, “the salience of a given policy or campaign issue in the public mind can rise as a result, and this may play to the strength or weakness of a particular campaign.”
But that paper was written with national debates in mind. We believe that nationally, partisan politics play a large role in selecting candidates, so voters often come in with a preconceived idea how they will vote.
Even in a primary debate, there are wide variations of political slant on display. Far left, far right and moderate, for example.
At the local level, hardcore political beliefs usually aren’t represented, so debates can be a place where voters learn about the candidates in real time, rather than in sound bytes, quick news stories or one-sided advertising campaigns.
That’s what we hope for in the Herald’s debate – to learn about these candidates’ hopes for Grand Forks and also to separate them so voters can make an educated decision on the ballot.
Civil public debate still has a place in politics, and especially locally.