Are televised presidential debates fair and evocative of information truly useful to voters? Not necessarily.
But is there a more effective way to ferret out the best candidate for the coming election? Not that anybody has yet discovered.
The debates conducted by and broadcast on NBC June 26 and 27 are still being talked about as the best means yet to sort through a too-crowded field of Democratic presidential wannnabes.
Historically, debates have offered the best way to assess how one candidate compared with another. But two dozen others? Not exactly.
In the two-night special, 20 candidates shouted and squabbled for attention, and the stage couldn’t even accommodate everybody. Steve Bullock, Wayne Messam and Seth Moulton didn’t make the cut. (If you’ve never heard of those presidential hopefuls, you’re not alone.)
The Democratic National Committee, saddled with the responsibility of trimming the field to as manageable a format as possible, decided to allow only candidates who had accumulated at least 1 percent of voters in three separate polls or who had collected donations from 65,000 people from at least 20 states.
So the lineup for June 26 featured Elizabeth Warren, Cory Booker, Beto O’Rourke, Amy Klobuchar, Julian Castro, Bill de Blasio, John Delaney, Tulsi Gabbard, Tim Ryan and Jay Inslee; for June 27, Bernie Sanders, Kamala Harris, Joe Biden, Pete Buttigieg, Michael Bennet, Marianne Williamson, Eric Swalwell, Kirsten Gillibrand, Andrew Yang and John Hickenlooper.
Debates can be effective, of course. The first nationally televised presidential debate was in 1960, between Republican Richard Nixon and Democrat John Kennedy.
More than 60 million people watched that debate, and polls indicated Kennedy as the clear winner. (Those who heard it on radio declared Nixon the winner, but TV revealed him as recovering from ill health, sweaty and not nearly as attractive as his opponent.)
In a two-person debate, opportunities to score with voters are abundant. But with 10 people fighting for time and recognition, those opportunities are severely diminished.
Candidates have only 1 minute to answer the question or questions given them, and those questions may or may not apply to their specific areas of concern in their campaign.
The candidate answering the question could find 60 seconds inadequate and keep talking over the moderator trying to interrupt, but that is done at the risk of appearing unyielding, intrusive and rude.
It is the same with anyone trying to respond to another’s answer. New York Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand overstepped in this regard several times. Some thought she made good points, while others found her offensive.
On the other hand, one of the acknowledged stars of the debate, California Sen. Harris, injected several key points and once even found an instantaneous lull during a brief brawl to remind her rivals that voters want to learn how to put food on their table, not watch a food fight.
We will see more debates as the campaign proceeds. They’re not perfect in illuminating each candidate. Unfortunately, they’re the best we have.