More often than not there is no correlation between who wins a US presidential
debate and who wins the election, according to numerous studies by political
Democrat John Kerry was said to have trounced Republican
George W. Bush in all three of their debates in the run up to the 2004
elections, but Bush won the race.
And even in cases where debates have an
impact on election results – as in the first-ever televised US presidential
debate in 1961 between the calm, collected and debonair John Kennedy and the
haggard, sweating Richard Nixon – the turnaround had little to do with substance
and more to do with appearances.
Similarly, when Binyamin Netanyahu
outmatched Shimon Peres in a televised debate ahead of the 1996 elections, it
was largely due to the younger candidate’s command of media, including
Netanyahu’s prudent use of “sound bite” messages, looking straight at the camera
and effective body language.
Nevertheless, we would like to join the call
made this week by the Movement for Quality Government to introduce the culture
of public debate into the Israeli political scene.
But we would like to
go one step further: While the movement, in a letter to the prime minister,
restricted its call to debates “among those who see themselves as prime
ministerial candidates,” we believe public debates should take place among the
leaders of all the larger political parties.
Public debates – whether in
a traditional televised framework with a moderator, in a town hall format, or
even via text messaging, Twitter or the Web – could bring a little more depth to
a political discourse that tends to devote precious little time to the
In recent days, endless hours of airtime and thousands of printed
words have been devoted to the intrigues taking place behind closed doors within
Shas between Eli Yishai and Arye Deri. But with elections just over three months
away, hardly any media coverage has been devoted, say, to the policies
implemented over the past four years by Shas’s Construction and Housing Minister
Ariel Attias or by the party’s Deputy Finance Minister Yitzhak Cohen. As a party
that touts itself before the voting public as sensitive to socioeconomic issues,
Shas’s track record should be put under public scrutiny at least as much as soap
opera-esque goings on behind the scenes in Rabbi Ovadia Yosef’s
Opposition parties, meanwhile, should not only be given the
opportunity to attack the incumbent government, they should also be forced to
articulate precisely how they plan to do a better job.
Public debates are
the only opportunity voters get to see candidates answering the same questions
and responding to one another’s arguments in real time.
answers to the most burning questions – from public education and the Iran
threat to haredi draft-dodging and the peace process with the Palestinians –
provide voters with the essential information needed to make an educated
And there are many intangibles that can be gleaned from a public
debate. Normally exposed to politicians delivering over-rehearsed performances
while reading from teleprompters, voters can better gain a sense of candidates’
dispositions, intellectual honesty and ability to connect on a human level in
the spontaneous atmosphere of a heated debate.
One of the explanations
given by political scientists for the lack of impact debates tend to have on
elections is that many voters have already made up their minds. Rarely will a
debate’s outcome, no matter how unequivocal, shake voters from party
Cognitive dissonance forces many voters to root for their
chosen candidate no matter how badly he or she was beaten in the
Nevertheless, the culture of debate is essential to a healthy
democracy. By forcing candidates to present their positions on the issues that
matter, public debates give voters the opportunity to make a better-informed
choice. What voters do with that opportunity is up to them.