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Neil Milner: Debates are rarely game-changers. Why do we still have them?

Neil Milner: Debates are rarely game-changers. Why do we still have them?

Candidate debates are the drama queens of political campaigns. They are too excessive.

People talk about them “swinging the electorate” as if the process is like a Dean Martin song: “When the marimba rhythms start to play, dance with me, make me swing.”

Muy elegant but muy misleading.

Research shows that debates change the minds of a few voters and that debates are hardly game-changers. (Much of this research relates to presidential debates, but much of it applies in general.)

On the rare occasion that debates are a game-changer, it’s more about simple arithmetic than sexy dancing and sexy violin. In close races, it takes little to change the game. If the margins aren’t close, waive them for discussions.

With that in mind, consider the preliminary discussions in Hawaii for 2022. Then I’ll come back to the hype itself – why we’re putting the debates on a pedestal more than they’re worth and the very serious costs of doing so.

In general, why don’t debates affect voters? Most of the voters watching them have already made up their minds and haven’t changed. They tend to modify what they hear to bring it in line with their current views.

People who change their minds after an argument usually do so for other reasons.

In a typical presidential election year, you can predict where the race will be after the debates by knowing the state of the race before the debates.

The debates may be very visual, but they are only a small, brief and usually less important part of a political campaign.

Gubernatorial candidates Colin Hanabusa, Gov. David Ige, held on the Kamehameha Schools campus in Kapalama.
Gubernatorial candidates Colin Hanabusa and David Ige debated each other during the 2018 campaign. But most voters watching the debates have already made up their minds. Corey Lum / Civil Beat / 2018

However, primaries are a little different because voters cannot rely on a political party as an easy strong indicator. In the upcoming Hawaii primary, Republicans are choosing only Republicans. Same with the Democrats.

In this case, the debates are somewhat likely to make a difference because what the candidates in the debate say about themselves is more important because it fills the void created by party choice.

Basic account

All of this is true, but there is one more simple but very important way to think about the impact of discussions. It’s called arithmetic, basically addition and subtraction.

If a candidate is, say, 1 percentage point behind in the race, the debate has a better chance of being a game-changer than if the candidate is, I don’t know, 30 points behind. Much better.

The Democratic governor contest may be an exception to the argumentative rule.

Because all of the candidates are Democrats, voters must discover other ways to tell the differences between them.

Good luck though. Ideologically, they seem more alike than different. Nothing wrong with that. I am simply saying that nothing jumps out either good or bad, and their discussions reflect that.

Our few polls indicate that there is no LG candidate in the definitive lead. They are grouped.

For this reason, LG debates may change the game because the number of votes needed to achieve this for a single candidate is relatively small.

But it is certainly not clear what these distinctions are and, more importantly, whether they have legs.

The Democratic governor’s race and thus the Democratic-conservative debates are the exact opposite. All indications are that Lt. Josh Green has consolidated and even increased his lead. In the latest Civil Beat/HNN poll, Green has 48% of the vote, while US Representative Kay Cahill has 16% and businesswoman Vicki Caetano has 15%.

Calculate. Imagine the size of the game change necessary to move that needle in the short time left before the August 13 primary and with far less money than a front runner and Kahele’s campaign turn around.

Therefore, the discussions will in no way have the necessary effect to change this. Do you think Cayetano just loaned her campaign money over $1 million so she could hire a debate coach?

Time-wise, it’s up. Any other democratic debates about the provinces are ritualistic. More on the rituals later.

The Republican governor’s debates are strange because the primary account is still in flux for the baffling reason that BJ Penn, the likely game-changing candidate, has opted out of the debate game so far.

Here’s the latest result from the same poll: Duke Aiona leads with 27%, and leads Heidi Tsuneyoshi (9%). But Ben, who had 24%, is almost in with Iona.

Of all the candidates from either party, Ben would benefit the most from participating in the debate. But he avoided them. Penn is different from other GOP candidates, more turbulent and populist.

He has a chance, he’s used to being in the public eye, but he’s new to politics and needs to convince voters that he’s serious and that his passions are theirs.

other political rituals

A showman with a different message that exploits the feelings of many. I’m no Tom Moffat, but this sounds like a potential TV star power.

Or maybe not, but it’s worth the chance — and the potential for final discussions to make a difference. Without Ben, any remaining Republican debates would be meaningless.

So, why the fuss about the debates? Why do they get more attention and more drama than they deserve?

First, it’s hanging fruit—easier for the media to cover, and certainly much easier than digging closely into the day-to-day campaigns and other less obvious but arguably more important actions that impact a campaign.

Second, the debates have become the waving of signals in Hawaii. It’s something candidates do because they might get criticized if they don’t and because who knows, it might work.

Third, and most seriously, the debates have become a tradition and ritual part of American politics. Like all traditions, they may have started out as something operative and influential but over time they developed a life of their own, becoming a given, accepted and stable entity that depended less on the past and more on dreams of a better future.

Fourth, this belief in the power and necessity of debates reflects a mourning for years past (or bygone) when politics were more rational, and people could persuade each other to change their minds based on facts and reason.

You know, the Lincoln-Douglas debates.

This is not how our world works anymore, if it ever did. Who needs another misleading political ritual?

Political debates are a bad model because they depict a fictional world. This is why those who study the debates are so cautious and critical about their effects on democracy.

Indeed, people have a great deal of trouble evaluating two competing assertions of facts. Confirmation bias makes debate viewers more likely to interpret information to align with their current beliefs. Partisans become more partisan.

The polarized antipathy we have toward each other makes it unlikely that we will ever be able to agree on facts.

But the debates are in fact a reflection of these problems, not a weapon against them.



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