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The debate over debates

by Olivia DiNucci / Columnist • November 1, 2012

Presidential debates cannot be expected to predict how effective a candidate may or may not perform when in office. Debates do not and should not allow for either candidate to clearly map each and every one of their intended policies. If anyone seeking such a high power position could address a resolution to the economic crisis or the unrest in the Middle East in 90 seconds, we are all in trouble. Debates, however, do give the candidates a chance to articulate to a global audience a summary of their short and long term agenda for the next four years.

The candidates spoke for a combined four hours in the three debates leading up to next week’s election, yet the most popular sound bites dealt with Big Bird, binders full of woman, “the 47 percent”, and Joe Biden’s sneering during the Vice Presidential debate. For this reason, some consider the debates pointless and a waste of time. Some watch to criticize the candidate and others quite simply see them as entertainment. But, some do look to debates for answers to base their vote on. But what was seen in the debates was not only candidates’ refusal to give concrete explanations to the questions asked, but some questions are not being raised at all. 

According to the Washington Post, more than 67 million people watched the first Presidential debate in 2012, up 15 million from the audience of the first Presidential debate in 2008. There is no doubt that employment rates, reactions to the attacks in Benghazi, and health care reform should be at the forefront of public discussion. But  with social media at our fingertips, the public has unprecedented opportunities to influence the news cycle and the presidential agenda – a power that extends beyond twitter hashtags dedicated to saving Big Bird. If the audience does not demand a certain amount of time devoted to equally significant and associated issues like the environment, poverty, and social justice, it becomes the people’s responsibility as much as the media’s.

The Associated Press analysis shows that of the roughly 50,000 words spoken in the three presidential debates, none of them included “climate change,” “global warming” or “greenhouse gas.” Housing was discussed in the first debate, but the word “foreclosure” was mentioned in none. Nor was “gay marriage.” Perhaps these issues are not brought up because these voters are considered a “minority” of the population and are not the targeted audience-the swing voter. But, the swing voter should be concerned with the issues that will inevitably affect them as much as their “minority” counterparts.

The focus on the middle class was made clear after candidates used it over 25 times in the first debate, while the word poverty was used once. There is no argument that strengthening the American middle class will strengthen America as a whole, but the steps of action to help the poor were left out completely. When NBC asked viewers of the debate to submit their own questions for the candidates, a number of Americans said they feel they have been underrepresented. 

Climate change was nonexistent from the debate cycle, the first time since 1988, when it was originally discussed on the presidential debate platform. Obama made the bold statement in 2008 that “this was the moment when the rise of the oceans began to slow and our planet began to heal.” No extreme remarks have been made in the recent months, yet it is an issue gaining momentum on both sides of the aisle. Results from a Pew poll released two weeks ago found increasing numbers of Democrats (77%) and Republicans (47%) saying there is solid evidence of the earth’s temperature warming. The numbers may have increased but there continues to be a substantial partisan divide on this issue. Neglecting the issue during the debate, whether it be because there was no direct question around the issue, or the candidates did not feel it was important enough to bring up, forced viewers to do their own research on where the candidates stand.

The second debate between Presidential hopefuls styled like a town hall meeting, was not a truly authentic townhall meeting, for by no means did the moderator call on the first 10 people with their hand raised. Instead, questions were pre approved by the Gallup polling organization. Perhaps questions not set by the media’s agenda were cut. Who to point the finger at is a whole other debate in itself. 

At this point, there is no turning back. With the election less than a week away, candidates will scramble to persuade or manipulate swing voters.The solution for this election will depend on the American voters. The responsibility of fact checking to find the truth and position each candidate has on the issues is our own, but ensuring the American voter is well-informed on as many issues as possible should be the priority of any debate, and of a true American democracy.