Which political candidates opted not to debate in 2022?
Once an expectation for anyone seeking state or national office, many candidates are finding that there’s little downside to skipping debates. The Midwest Newsroom reviewed 2022 debate participation for Nebraska, Missouri, Kansas and Iowa.
Across the country, fewer political candidates are taking part in debates than a decade ago. What used to be an expectation is now seen by many campaigns as a risk that’s not worth taking.
For Justin Kirk, a communication studies professor and coach of the University of Nebraska-Lincoln debate team, the lack of debates is a symptom of a backsliding democracy with fewer guardrails that keep dialogue between politicians and the public going.
Engaging in debates, Kirk said, is one of the core points that James Madison argued as the Constitution was being written.
“The affirmative case for debates begins with this Madisonian principle: That a knowledgeable public is one of the central functioning elements of a democracy,” Kirk said.
The lack of traditional debates comes at a time of high polarization and media fragmentation. The Republican National Committee left the Commission on Presidential Debates earlier this year, casting doubt on whether there will be presidential debates in 2024. An analysis by FiveThirtyEight shows a downward trend in the frequency of debates in statewide races, with less than half of senate races having a debate in 2022.
Kirk says there are two main reasons why candidates choose not to debate: a lack of trust or fear.
“I don’t think either of those decisions are good for any politician,” Kirk said. “And I think that shows a fundamental disregard or disrespect for the underworkings of democracy.”
Claims made, claims unanswered
In the four states covered by the Midwest Newsroom — Iowa, Kansas, Missouri and Nebraska — debates between congressional candidates only occurred in 10 of the region’s 19 congressional districts in 2022.
For the U.S. House of Representatives, candidates chose not to debate in districts that lacked large urban cores such as Nebraska’s 3rd District, Iowa’s 4th district and Missouri’s 6th District. The Kansas 1st District and much of Iowa bucked that trend.
In the Nebraska governor’s race, Republican Jim Pillen chose not to debate Democrat Carol Blood.
“Jim has gone out and answered voters' questions, talked to them, shared his vision directly,” senior advisor Matthew Trail told Nebraska Public Media in August. “He's done that more than any other candidate. He's been the most accessible gubernatorial candidate in Nebraska's history.”
Trail said the Republican’s strategy to avoid debates was decided “day one.”
Still, Pillen agreed to a series of Q&A sessions with the Nebraska Examiner which featured answers from both candidates.
In the race for Missouri's U.S. Senate seat, Attorney General Eric Schmitt was a no-show for a debate hosted by the Missouri Press Association in September. It was only the second time since 1998 that a major-party candidate didn’t participate in that forum. Polling suggests that both Pillen and Schmitt are favored to win their races.
Hover over the regions on the map below to see the names of the candidates who did or did not debate in 2022.
Media shares blame
Debates can easily collapse into the rehashing of stump speeches and personal attacks unless a skilled moderator is able to reel in candidates and press them on their claims.
“To be fair to the candidates, I think the reason some of them have avoided debate is that they have become you-know-what shows,” said Kathy Kiely, a professor of journalism at the University of Missouri.
“Increasingly, you’re seeing debates turn into dueling soundbites."Kathy Kiely, University of Missouri journalism professor
Declining debate quality, combined with horse race political coverage, lessens the chance that candidates are challenged on their plans and views. Having fewer beat reporters who know how to ask the right questions to politicians also makes this more of a challenge, Kiely said.
Part of improving debates, she said, is depends on debate organizers and moderators encouraging actual dialogue. That takes a willingness to press a candidate and enforce the rules.
“You need somebody who is not afraid to tell somebody like Donald Trump or somebody like Ron DeSantis ‘your time is up, it’s the other person’s turn.’” Kirk said. If that fails, moderators should be able to cut off the mic.
Kirk cited the 2016 Democratic Party primary debates as a quality example of the form: Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders debated on healthcare and economic policy, allowing them to communicate their divergent views to the public.
The first 2020 Presidential debate was quite different from those, with then-President Donald Trump interrupting Joe Biden and speaking over Chris Wallace.
The modern political debate is light years away from the famed Lincoln-Douglas debates of 1858 when Abraham and Lincoln and Stephen Douglas argued over the expansion of slavery in the growing nation’s new territories. Those debates inspired Lincoln-Douglas debate, the format that Kirk coaches. His team won an intercollegiate national championship in the spring of 2022.
Both Kirk and Kiely said that more debate and dialogue restores some norms and civility in politics, but for those to stick, it will take a shift in perspective among polarized citizens, as Kirk put it: “To see the opposition as the opposition and not the enemy.”
This story comes from the Midwest Newsroom, an investigative journalism collaboration including IPR, KCUR 89.3, Nebraska Public Media News, St. Louis Public Radio and NPR.