ANATOMY OF A CANDIDATE DEBATE
On October 10, television viewers across Indiana tuned into a one-hour debate between the candidates for Secretary of State. The debate was sponsored and organized by the LWV of Indiana. The candidates fielded questions, sometimes expressed areas of shared agreement, and highlighted their differences on aspects of the job that are important for voters to consider.But how did that debate come about – for that matter, how does any debate come about?
Planning for a debate usually begins almost as soon as the primary resultsor state conventions are known.A small group of League volunteers working with community or media partners determines which races to pursue. The team outlines the format of the debate, when it is likely to take place, how the media will be involved (e.g., televised, webcast, etc.) and broadly the rules that will be followed both by the organizers and the candidates. Then comes the candidate dance.
Of course, no debate can take place without the candidates. When reaching out to the candidates to invite them to debate it’s important that they feel that they can trust the League as an organization and debate organizer. This means helping them understand the role of the League in helping to educate voters and the organization’s commitment to non-partisan and fair treatment.
Discussions with the candidates build over a period of time as they learn more about the format, timing of the event and making their own calculations about how or if a debate will benefit their campaigns. Some candidates engage in these discussions with interest, others are more intimidated by the thought of facing their opponents and lastly, some consider it a mistake to give their opponent a platform and will only want to avoid the debate. The dance consists of a number of communications via email, voice or in-person meetings to get each candidate to the point where they understand what’s involved in the debate and can make an informed decision to accept or decline the invitation.
For the Secretary of State’s debate both the Libertarian and Democratic candidates were interested in the event and committed with relatively few reservations. The Republican candidate was the opposite and simply refused to communicate – not even willing to give a firm “no thank you.” Fortunately, the League’s empty chair rule (it takes more than one candidate to have a debate) was satisfied since two of the three statewide candidates agreed to participate.
Once the candidates commit, finalizing the specifics of the debate moves into high gear. Lots of details like finding a moderator, determining volunteer needs, recruiting those volunteers, determining media needs and how they will cover the event and, of course, getting plenty of questions for the candidates. This year we tried a novel approach to “open source” the questions asking the public to submit questions on the League’s website. The final set of questions was selected and prioritized out of all those submitted. The final form of each question was drafted by the moderator. This process ensured that the questions were both consistent, logical in their organization and above all, confidential. The candidates didn’t know them -- even the debate organizers only knew the raw form of the questions.
Fast forward to debate night. The volunteers start arriving about two hours before the broadcast, candidates about one hour before. Press to cover the event started setting up in the media room about 30 minutes before the debate which was the same time the candidates went to makeup. Promptly at 7 PM, the cameras roll and a fast-paced, professionally moderated debate between two compelling candidates is presented to the voters of Indiana. For the next hour we let the voters see, hear and decide for themselves who would be the best Secretary of State.
The interesting thing about debates is that those who show up and engage get the chance to communicate their ideas and vision to the voters. Those who decline to debate send a compelling message to voters too.
Ken Jones, LWVIN Voter Services