The debate destroyers

December 15, 2003|By William Benoit

POLITICAL DEBATES are very useful.

Research shows debates increase issue knowledge, influence perceptions of candidates' character, affect which issues are important to voters and can change vote choice or increase voters' confidence in their decision for those who do not change preferences.

But debates could be improved by removing journalists from the equation. They ask too many stupid, useless questions.

The recent New Hampshire Democratic debate illustrates this problem.

When asked about the most important determinant of their vote for president, more voters answer issues than character. Which issues matter most right now? A November CBS News poll found the most important issue to voters was jobs and the economy. Next were the war with Iraq and terrorism, education, foreign policy, poverty and homelessness, and health care.

Surely Ted Koppel and Scott Spradling, who asked the questions at the New Hampshire debate, focused on what matters most to voters.

Wrong.

Mr. Koppel began by asking whether former Vermont Gov. Howard Dean could beat President Bush. He asked about endorsements, real, lost and rumored. They asked the Rev. Al Sharpton and former Illinois Sen. Carol Moseley Braun how they could win New Hampshire without spending time much there. Sen. John Edwards of North Carolina was asked what went wrong with his campaign; Sen. John Kerry of Massachusetts was asked what was going right with Dr. Dean's campaign. Sen. Joseph I. Lieberman of Connecticut was asked why he trailed in New Hampshire when Al Gore and Mr. Lieberman won over 266,000 votes there in 2000.

None of these questions concerns the candidates' qualifications for office. None asks what policies they would pursue if elected. These questions focus on the "horse race," or competitive element, of the campaign.

Does Mr. Koppel think that most voters will decide how to vote based on endorsements? Does he think voters can choose more wisely when they know how much money the candidates raised? Does he believe knowing when candidates will drop out can help citizens make better decisions about the Democratic nominee? Does he think voters can pick the best candidate by hearing strategic analyses about why campaigns are failing or succeeding?

These questions are dreadful, poorly designed to help voters learn who would make the best Democratic nominee. You have to wonder if he is trying to inform voters. Mr. Koppel revealed to a Manchester TV reporter that his purpose was to "keep people at home from dozing off."

Remember the problems voters care about? Even though jobs and the economy are the most important topic for voters, Mr. Koppel and Mr. Spradling asked 17 other questions before finally getting around to jobs. Then they only asked a single question about jobs, compared with nearly 20 about the horse race. Only one question in an hour and a half concerned education. Poverty/homelessness and health care, also important to voters, were completely ignored by these journalists.

Mr. Spradling mentioned a poll on New Hampshire voters' priorities: "They cited the economy, they cited health care, they cited honesty of the candidate. All of those" were more important to New Hampshire voters than Iraq. So, having mentioned this poll, did he proceed to ask about these issues? No. Mr. Spradling asked retired Gen. Wesley K. Clark if he was "listening to the voters out there." Journalists who ask questions in debates are the ones who are not listening to voters.

Of course, some journalists ask useful questions. But most do not. We can find many poor questions in primary and general campaign debates. Research on general debates (1960, 1976 to 2000) found that there was no relationship whatsoever between the issues that mattered most to voters and the frequency of questions on those topics from journalists. Journalists squander the opportunity to help voters make better decisions by asking poor questions, dwelling on the horse race instead of forcing candidates to discuss the issues that matter to voters.

Voters should ask these questions. Some debates have allowed voters (often undecided voters) to ask questions. Or voters could submit questions to an impartial panel, which would select questions on the issues most important to voters.

However this is accomplished, voters rather than journalists should determine what candidates discuss in debates. Let journalists report on the debates. Allowing voters to determine the topics of debates would better serve our ideals of democracy.

The candidates' reactions to Mr. Koppel's and Mr. Spradling's questions show they are aware of the awful questions asked in New Hampshire. Democracy is too important to allow these silly and useless questions, asked by journalists, to continue.

William Benoit is a professor of communication at the University of Missouri, Columbia.

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