Campaign season in battleground Arizona is in full swing. The midterms are in less than a month. Statewide races are polling within the margin of error, attack ads are plastered across the airwaves and millions of dollars are being thrown at campaigns. The horse race is on and everything seems to be chugging along as usual — except for one traditional factor. In the Arizona governor race, one of the most watched and critical races in the country, there have been zero debates between the two major party candidates, and none are planned for the future.
The reason for this anomaly? Democrat Katie Hobbs is simply refusing to debate. The Hobbs campaign claims that the refusal to debate is based on prior, and expected, hijinks and conspiratorial nonsense from her challenger, Republican Kari Lake. Lake, a fringe right-wing figure associated closely with disgraced former President Donald Trump, did refuse to answer questions in her primary debate earlier this year, and given her track record of acting off the walls, a respectful debate on her end seems hard to imagine. There are a few problems with Hobbs’ line of reasoning, however. First, who cares? That Lake is scared to answer tough questions should be a perfect attack line for Hobbs during the debate. The stage would also give an opportunity for Hobbs to rightly call out Lake’s conspiracy theories in a way that can’t directly be done elsewhere. Secondly, and of concern, is that Hobbs’ explanation seems improbable.
What seems more likely is that the Hobbs campaign sees a debate as a chance for Lake to succeed, given her extensive media experience and the fact that she is known to grab media attention. Though both explanations are not comforting, it is this possibility that is especially worrisome. The purpose of debates, at their heart, is not to be a platform for a candidate to gain or lose ground in an election. They are an avenue for the voters to watch candidates converse on issues, be given tough questions they otherwise could more easily avoid and inform voters about the issues that matter to them.
Expanding on this, though we are not in the 1960s, when political debates might be one of the few times one could see a candidate on television, debates feature timeless benefits. First is the importance of the moderator. Moderators can ask tough questions, without the possibility of the candidate simply walking away, as they could with a reporter. If they dodge, their opponent is right there to jump on them for it.
The second key benefit is that debates are one of the only, if not the only, time when candidates have a chance to directly debate each other on the issues. Thirdly, debates are an easy way for voters to get a general grasp of how a candidate behaves, what issues they are seeking to highlight and where they stand on various matters. While the advent of sites like Politico may serve to give those inside the beltway seemingly infinite material on candidates, many voters don’t have the interest nor the time to consume it. Most voters don’t tune into campaigns until late in the campaign anyway, so the timing works out great.
And, while some may argue that the importance of debates has decreased, voter interest in them clearly has not. The Mike Pence-Kamala Harris debate was the second most watched vice presidential debate in the history of the country. Three of the four most-watched debates in American history have occurred in the last two elections. Debates are for the voters. If voters are finding them as compelling to watch as ever, it is an especially awful time for debates to decrease in frequency.
Political debates have historically been an American campaign season staple. They are a showcase of democracy, free speech and the exchanging of ideas, and candidates have traditionally had enough respect for voters and norms that they would participate. Sadly, this is not only no longer the case in Arizona, it is no longer the case nationwide.
Long gone are the days of 2012, when a candidate not participating in the normal set of debates made them a noteworthy outlier and good faith discourse was frequent. Arguably caused most by Trump in the 2016 elections, debates took a dive for the worse, and that dive only went deeper in 2020. But at least the debates at a presidential level happened. Now, the Republican National Committee has quit the Commission on Presidential Debates, casting doubt on whether any televised debates at the national level will even take place in 2024. But, more currently, and beyond the quest for the presidency, state after state is seeing fewer political debates than usual, if any at all.
As NPR noted, battleground states Pennsylvania, Wisconsin, Georgia, Arizona and North Carolina will all only see one debate in their respective Senate races. In Nevada and Missouri, that number is likely to be zero. In the Minnesota race for governor, a total of three debates are likely to happen — the lowest number since 1998. Incumbent Republican governors in Ohio and Nebraska are refusing to debate even once. When looking at the total number of debates for the five most competitive Senate races nationwide, the sum has gone from 17 in 2010 to a mere seven in 2022. In Michigan’s 2020 Senate race, for instance, Democratic incumbent Senator Gary Peters, and Republican challenger John James never met on a debate stage.
A main reason candidates now debate less is that the stage is not electorally beneficial to them at the time, which seems to be the case in Arizona. Though the risks of debating now are arguably greater than in decades past — social media now ensures millions more will see a debate hiccup — this is not the entire explanation for the decrease in debates. A more complete explanation is that, as political norms have been shattered, and candidates expect to feel less backlash for not debating, the political calculus is much easier. Political norms that were once assumed — peaceful transfer of power — and at least a hint of political decorum — allowing reporters into political events, etc. — are no longer assured. Skipping debates is normal now. Doing just one debate, or causing a ruckus about some obscure debate rule, is commonplace.
The lack of debates and the increase in polarization offer a disappointingly prescient chicken and egg metaphor; lack of dialogue reinforces polarization and vice versa. Candidates now are looking to especially insulate themselves in bubbles. They ban reporters and hold limited public events among other suspect tactics. Candidates don’t have as much interest in genuinely debating on the issues. Nor does Congress, for that matter. This polarization means fewer debates. But at the same time, a lack of debates amplifies polarization. Debates may be one of the few times some voters will ever have even heard their preferred candidates’ opponent speak. If voters are keeping themselves in bubbles, and politicians are keeping themselves in bubbles, then polarization is reasonably going to shoot up.
The harsh reality is that skipping out on debates shows nothing but utter contempt for the voters candidates are seeking to serve. Candidates, by skipping out on debates for political reasons, are signaling to voters that power is their main driver, voter interest be damned.
Whether candidates have more contempt for voters now than they have in years past, or that the sentiment and preference were always there but for a reason of predicted backlash was not acted upon, is impossible to answer. The latter is entirely possible. If that is true, then debates in modern times, and the lack thereof, are also serving to expose politicians concerning attitudes. What we do know, however, is that the decrease in political debates is representative of the norm-shattering, democratic backsliding and power-grabbing politicians the United States has become known for.
Political debates, through a lens of democracy and the benefit of voters, can only be good. They increase transparency, hold candidates accountable and are an easy way for voters to become educated on the races important to them. They uphold norms and tradition and give a sense of normalcy and stability. Political debates through a lens of electoral consequence are not as clear in terms of benefits for the candidate. Sadly, it has become quite clear what lens politicians nationwide are increasingly looking through.
Devon Hesano is an Opinion Columnist and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org