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This Year's Presidential Election Campaign May Include Public Deliberation

I just read an exciting segment in May 14th’s Friday Letter from the Kettering Foundation. The segment started off with this eye-popping (for us, at least) statement: “There’s a chance public deliberation will become a part of this year’s presidential election campaign.” Click below to read about what transcribed when the Director of Voter Education for the Commission on Presidential Debates (the folks who have organized the presidential debates since 1988) visited Kettering on May 11.

There’s a chance public deliberation will become a part of this year’s presidential election campaign.

Heather Balas, Director of Voter Education for the Commission on Presidential Debates, was the Tuesday evening speaker and stayed over to talk more about the proposed debates on Wednesday morning.

The Commission on Presidential Debates is a nonprofit, nonpartisan organization that has sponsored and organized every presidential debate since 1988. Heather has a master’s degree in political communication from the University of Maryland and a bachelor’s degree in journalism from Eastern New Mexico. She is also Associate Director of the California Center for Civic Participation in Sacramento.

A series of four, 90-minute debates – three for presidential candidates and one for vice presidential candidates – are proposed. The first would be held September 30 at the University of Miami in Coral Gables. Vice presidential candidates would debate October 5 at Case Western University in Cleveland. The second presidential debate would be held October 8 at Washington University in St. Louis and the third presidential debate would be held October 13 at Arizona State University in Tempe. They are all scheduled to begin at 9 p.m. Eastern time and will draw 3,000 media representatives.

As proposed, the first presidential debate would have the candidates standing behind podiums, as John Kennedy and Richard Nixon did in the 1960 campaign. The second would be a roundtable discussion and the third would be a town hall meeting. The vice presidential debate would have the candidates behind podiums or involved in a roundtable discussion.

After the conventions, the formats will be determined and the moderator(s) agreed upon during negotiations with the candidates and their staffs.

The list of television networks and cable channels expected to broadcast all or some of the debates includes ABC, CBS, NBC, Fox, PBS, CNN and MSNBC. An audience estimated at between 40 and 90 million viewers is anticipated.

In 1996 the Commission developed DebateWatch!, a program which brings citizens together to watch presidential debates and then discuss them among themselves. The events range from high profile, televised discussions to smaller gatherings that bring neighbors together in private living rooms. The goal is to encourage civic engagement by getting citizens to talk to one another about the election.

In addition to the traditional moderated debates, the Commission has also experimented with town hall formats that bring groups of citizens together to pose questions to the presidential candidates. The Commission is currently interested in exploring new means of engaging citizens in the election more fully through a variety of techniques, including deliberative forums.

KF Program Officer John Cavanaugh, who moderated Wednesday morning’s discussion, suggested there might be a way KF and the Commission could work together on research of what happens during the campaign. A research question, he suggested, could be “ How does a deliberative public approach the election?” John indicated there might be some overlapping interests. Further, he said, it could be that the National Issues Forums network could be interested in working with DebateWatch!.

During Wednesday’s discussion, Hal Saunders, KF’s Director of International Programs, said he would like to see the candidates find a different way to talk during the campaign, so they could relate in a deliberative way. “Who decided there should be debates as opposed to conversations?” he asked Heather. Debates, he said, are confrontational and they should be conversational.

Heather said debates are traditional and the commission was making a step in the direction of the conversational in the town hall format. “People feel the town hall debates are more substantive, but less exciting,” Heather said. “ The candidates are nervous about doing something new,” Heather said, “because the debates come so close to the election. ”

“To see politicians as confrontational,” Hal responded, “seems to me to be destructive to our democracy. Maybe a contribution would be to teach these guys there is a different way to talk.”

Heather said she saw Hal’s point as valid and noted that the roundtable formats move away from the confrontational.

“A more thoughtful exchange would tell you more about how their mind will work when they get into an area of complexity,” Hal continued.

John pointed out that the Commission facilitates the venues and negotiates between the candidates, but there are some constraints. “The fact that we have debates is extraordinary,” he said. “The incumbent doesn’t like them because they give a platform to the challenger.”

Kim Downing, a KF Associate who works for the Ohio Poll at the University of Cincinnati, said the confrontational format has been around a long time and said she felt the Commission had done a good job of moving away from it. In 1992, she said, the town hall format had more substance than the debate, but the commission was constrained by the candidates.

Cole Campbell, KF Associate and pioneer public journalist, said elimination of the debates would have an effect on the quality of our political discourse. “The central difference between a debate and a conversation,” he said, “is clash and clash has value. There is a moment of differentiation. Clash is a moment of political theater, a catalyst for people to start talking about politics. Presidential debates are important for clash, for attracting attention. Their main value is to get some issues on the table and give them some discussion. Debates may not be the best way to resolve things, but they add an enriching element.”

Do debates change people’s minds? Heather said there was no change in the opinions of those middle-aged or older. They tend to know the candidates and are conversant with policy matters. “Opinion changes among younger voters,” she said. “They are less likely to have made a decision (on a candidate) or have the background on policy.”

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Sandy Heierbacher
Sandy Heierbacher co-founded the National Coalition for Dialogue & Deliberation (NCDD) with Andy Fluke in 2002, with the 60 volunteers and 50 organizations who worked together to plan NCDD’s first national conference. She served as NCDD's Executive Director between 2002 and 2018. Click here for a list of articles and resources authored by Sandy.

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