Political debates — once as common in October as dropping leaves and college football — are in trouble.
Not at the presidential level. Wednesday night, more than 50 million people are expected to watch at least part of the final debate between Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton. Debates have become defining moments in presidential campaigns, watched for attack lines, gaffes, jokes and candidate demeanor.
And not just in the primaries. The country had plenty of opportunities to watch candidates sling mud last winter, before Trump and Clinton won their parties’ nominations.
But in state and regional races, political pros say, the classic one-on-one debate is increasingly seen as a relic, unnecessary in the 21st century.
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“Debates have become a high-risk, low-reward situation for us,” said Gregg Keller, a Republican campaign strategist in Missouri. “If you make a mistake, then it’s on a camera loop forever.”
Candidate debates are hard to organize, and often expensive. They require enormous candidate preparation. A single misstep can be disastrous. And they don’t change the minds of many voters.
They appear to be less popular than ever. Consider:
▪ Missouri U.S. Senate candidates Roy Blunt and Jason Kander have debated just once and are not expected to square off again between now and Election Day.
▪ The calendar lists no more debates between governor candidates Eric Greitens and Chris Koster, who have met face to face just once.
▪ Rep. Kevin Yoder and challenger Jay Sidie likely won’t share a stage in Kansas.
▪ Missouri attorney general candidates Josh Hawley and Teresa Hensley will meet once — Thursday, in Springfield. After that, their paths diverge until voters make their choice.
Candidate forums remain a staple of lesser races — for state legislative seats, county commissions and city councils. Often, they are low-key affairs sponsored by civic groups and clubs.
They can be crowded. Fall forums for Kansas legislative races might include 20 or more candidates, reducing actual speaking time for participants. Press coverage is thin.
But in major races, increasingly, candidates studiously avoid sharing a room before the polls open. Missouri’s governor and senator candidates debated once — for an hour on a Friday afternoon at the end of September in a remote Branson hotel, streamed online.
Reporters covered those debates, but they appeared to have little impact on the race.
“There once was a time when the sole way you could get information out was through a well-publicized debate,” said Roy Temple, director of the Missouri Democratic Party. Now, “there are other mechanisms to be heard.”
The demise of the candidate debate might surprise politicians from other eras.
By common agreement the political debate as an institution took hold in 1858, when U.S. Senate candidates Abraham Lincoln and Stephen Douglas held seven debates in Illinois. The debates were crowded, popular affairs, reprinted in the state’s newspapers. They remain an archetype — most American schoolchildren can tell you about the famous debates, the two men standing on small stages while arguing over slavery.
The debate tradition grew in fits and starts, with candidates often sharing stages for convenience. Incumbents were reluctant to offer opponents exposure through debates, and presidential candidates largely ignored them — the first formal presidential debate wasn’t staged until 1960, when Richard Nixon and John Kennedy met.
“Generally, incumbents lose with a debate because it gives their opponent more name recognition,” said Clay Barker, director of the Kansas GOP.
But many down-ballot candidates found ways to make time for debates, sometimes in newspaper offices, often before influential social groups. Later, debates in some states expanded as radio and television became important ways to communicate with voters.
“They were standard,” said Washburn University political science professor Bob Beatty, who has collected taped debates for study.
And debates remained important well into the 21st century. In 2014, Sen. Pat Roberts debated opponent Greg Orman on television in Kansas. Statewide candidates debated at the state fair in Hutchinson, exchanges that were taped and broadcast.
In 2000, Missouri Senate candidates John Ashcroft and Mel Carnahan debated on live television in Kansas City (Carnahan died the next day in a plane crash). In 2006, Sen. Jim Talent debated challenger Claire McCaskill on TV. In 2010, Blunt and Democrat Robin Carnahan held a broadcast debate.
This year, Blunt and Kander have been unable to settle on a time or place for a second joint meeting.
“Senator Blunt should have to defend his 20-year record in Washington, and he is refusing to do so,” said Anne Feldman, a spokeswoman for Kander.
Blunt spokesman Tate O’Connor said the campaign will “continue to look for good opportunities to talk to Missourians about the real issues that matter to them.”
Missouri governor candidates Koster and Greitens are blaming each other for the end of debate discussions.
The decline in debates is only partially related to the risk candidates now take when they participate. Consultants say the debates don’t matter — most voters don’t watch, and there are other, better ways to reach the public.
“A lot of us that used to turn to traditional debate methods on television are now able to compare and contrast information using social media and links to articles,” said Missouri State Rep. Tracy McCreery, a St. Louis Democrat. “Part of this is a sign of the times.”
And the appetite for media-sponsored debates has cooled. Most television stations are reluctant to surrender expensive prime-time space for candidates. Media organizations broadly face pressure from third- and fourth-party candidates who want to participate, increasing the difficulty of getting campaigns to agree on a time and place.
Voters, exposed to cable TV shout-fests on a daily basis, seem less focused on debates as well.
For all those hurdles, debates are still taking place. In Kansas, Rep. Lynn Jenkins and opponent Britani Potter debated on public television Monday. High-profile debates have aired in other states as well.
“Every state is different,” said Aaron Trost, a GOP consultant working several races this cycle. “In some states debates are a big part of the political culture, and in other states it is less so.”
Debating seems firmly in place at the presidential level, both in primary contests and the general election. By election day Trump will have taken part in at least 15 forums and debates.
But local debates may become harder and harder to find. Beatty thinks state law should be changed to require debates, which he says remain among the most important ways for voters to reach decisions.
Short of such a law, Beatty said voters should punish candidates who won’t debate.
“It’s not good for democracy at all,” Beatty said. “There is no equivalent for a one-hour, televised forum for voters getting the most information they can get.”
The Star’s Hunter Woodall contributed to this report.