The debate dance

Dave Busiek, Iowa Capitol Dispatch

Change the format to better serve voters

Editor’s note: This article is from Iowa Capital Dispatch from Sept. 29, 2022

Iowans are losing one more traditional handhold on the world of politics as incumbent candidates are either refusing to participate in debates or limiting themselves to just one.

And maybe that’s a good thing – but only IF debates evolve into something more useful for voters. Sadly, I don’t think that’s happening, but I have a few ideas that might work.

The format has gotten stale. Candidates are trained to mostly ignore the questions they’re asked and pivot to what they really want to say, and there’s no penalty for doing so. Rules prevent journalists from asking meaningful follow-up questions. The whole experience can leave voters feeling like they just watched longer versions of scripted TV political ads.

I’ve organized many televised debates, for offices ranging from city council to Statehouse to governor, Congress and a nationally televised presidential candidate debate in 2015. As the organizer, I often felt like a ping-pong ball getting swatted back and forth by campaigns insisting we do things their way or they wouldn’t participate. It takes a lot of diplomacy to bring two warring campaigns to agreement on a date, place and rules. Usually, we could make it happen but sometimes we couldn’t.

A case in point is former U.S. Rep. David Young, who first ran for the House seat in the Des Moines area in 2014. Young was only too happy to take part in both our Republican primary debate and the general election debate when he first ran in 2014. It was a high-profile affair, sponsored by KCCI-TV and The Des Moines Register. He wrote thank-you notes after each debate.  He won that general election against Staci Appel.

Two years later, when he was the incumbent, he couldn’t be bothered and refused to take part in our debate. He no longer needed us, and perhaps that was the right call as he won re-election.  But in 2018, he refused again and lost to Democrat Cindy Axne. When 2020 rolled around, there was Young – once again a challenger and once again eagerly participating in high-profile televised debates.

Of all the debates I organized, I think the most effective was NOT the typical format with candidates behind a podium, coin-flips, timed answers, and rules about who gets to respond to whom.

The best ones were more informal, sitting around a table with a journalist or two asking pointed questions and good follow-ups. We didn’t time answers.  We just asked the candidates to be respectful and keep their answers short. The moderator had the ability to interrupt and move things along. Iowa PBS does a good job with that during their Iowa Press debates. That’s a better format because it’s less scripted and more like a discussion around the dinner table.

In fact, the dinner table would be a GREAT place for future debates.  When Gov. Tom Vilsack ran for re-election against Doug Gross, we found a family willing to host the candidates to their house for dinner on successive nights. The only rule – no ties!

Our cameras rolled as mom, dad and the kids asked questions not only about issues, but about what they like to eat, and about their families. The hosts keenly observed who preferred pie or cake for dessert, and who got up to help clean dishes. It was so much more personal – and informative.  Viewers got a sense of who the candidates are as real people.  It’s nearly impossible for candidates to prep because they had no idea what an 8-year-old kid might ask them.

That’s what we need more of. Informal, unscripted conversations between candidates and Iowans affected by their decisions. I realize it’s difficult these days to get candidates to agree to events where they don’t control the message. With incumbents skipping debates or limiting themselves to just one, I fear voters will become increasingly reliant on the 30-second scripted ads, which are pervasive, often negative, and frequently misleading.