Editor’s Note: For an alternative viewpoint, please see: Point: Do Political Debates Change Elections? Yes.
The 2016 general election is a year away, but both major parties had record viewership for their presidential debates. The Republican field is particularly volatile, with more than a dozen challengers to frontrunners Donald Trump and Ben Carson.
Any suggestion that political debates don’t matter might seem laughable. Ask Rick Perry about his 2012 “oops” moment or former GOP frontrunner Scott Walker about his tepidly received debate performances.
Furthermore, it’s terrific that so many Americans are watching debates. With more media outlets targeting partisan slivers of the public, we need forums that bring us together to engage with our common challenges.
But it’s actually rather easy to argue that by other standards, debates rarely matter. That is, debates next fall will not affect who wins more than nine in 10 congressional races and some 40 states in the presidential race.
Here’s why. In primaries, party backers evaluate both likability and viability. It’s the most interesting time in politics for hearing about real differences involving foreign policy, economic policies and more narrow concerns that often are ignored in general elections.
Voters will respond to candidates they like, but also start coalescing around whom they think can win. Candidates may surge, then fall precipitously, with debate performance often having a significant impact.
But the general election is different. Under our antiquated voting rules, Americans’ diversity of political thought gets channeled into two “viable” choices: Republicans and Democrats. The public understanding of those brands is increasingly polarized, with record percentages of voters firmly locked into one camp. Candidates’ character and issue positions are secondary to whether they’re on “team blue” or “team red.”
Take presidential elections, where we vote in 51 state boxes, counting the District of Columbia. Each state winner gets all of that state’s electoral votes, and the candidate with an electoral vote majority becomes president. No matter how much money is spent and how well a candidate debates, we already can project winners in the 35 states that have been absolutely ignored for three straight elections due to predictability. At least five more states will be locked down by next fall. That’s why Barack Obama only campaigned in eight states in 2012, and more than 99 percent of advertising dollars was targeted to 12 states.
Even the overall outcome is decided mostly by “fundamentals” — that is, voter attitudes about the economy and the need for change. After studying all presidential election polls between 1952 and 2008, political scientists Robert Erikson and Christopher Wlezien concluded “the best prediction from the debates is the initial verdict before the debates.”
Most congressional elections are also locked down. Last year, FairVote’s Monopoly Politics projected final winners in nearly nine in 10 House races in 2016 using a methodology that missed only one of its last 700 projections. The dominant factor is the nearly perfect correlation between a district’s partisan lean and its partisan outcome. Throw in incumbency advantages, and we can expect the average victory margin again to be greater than two-to-one.
As a recent example, Virginia just held state legislative elections. Two-thirds of its races were uncontested. Republicans won every district carried by Mitt Romney in 2012, and Democrats won every district where Obama earned more than 54 percent. State debates and millions of campaign dollars couldn’t overcome those partisan fundamentals.
I take three lessons from these harsh realities.
First, let’s reform the Electoral College. The National Popular plan would guarantee that the candidate who wins the most popular votes in all 50 states is always elected president. It’s been enacted in nearly a dozen states and can be in place by 2020, allowing every American to experience a close presidential election as one where their vote matters.
Second, let’s change voting methods to usher in a new era of voter choice and fairness. Modeled in a dozen cities, ranked choice voting allows third parties and independents to contest elections without being “spoilers.” Maine voters will have the chance to enact it next year for Congress and state elections.
A congressional bill also expected next year would transform voters’ chances to participate in contested races and elect candidates they really want by requiring states to use ranked choice voting in larger, multi-winner congressional districts. It would forever slay the winner-take-all “gerrymander.”
Third, the very fact that general election debates rarely affect outcomes should free partisans to improve them. Their greatest value is generating civic conversation that will enrich us even more if we add more voices and innovation. We finally can free the debates — and improve our democracy.