people walking away from debate stage

Why are some political candidates skipping debates?

October 18, 2022


Political debates are an American political tradition, allowing voters a chance to watch candidates face off on the issues before heading to the voting booth. But as this year’s midterm elections approach, some candidates are avoiding them. Anthony Sparacino, a University of Richmond political science professor, offers insights into the role of debates in today’s political arena.

What are the advantages of debates?

These events are important because they are opportunities for voters to see the candidates on the same stage and hear their answers to the same set of questions, or at the very least discuss the same topics. Debates contribute to the information about candidates that voters can obtain in a different way than more scripted campaign messages.

Why do some candidates shun debates? 

Debates are a way to get one’s message out there for free. But unlike paid media — campaign advertisements — these situations come with some risk. A candidate could make a gaffe or appear unprepared for a question. One explanation for why we are seeing some candidates avoiding debates, or trying to schedule fewer of them, has to do with their perception of risk. A candidate who is ahead in the polls is less likely to want to participate in a debate. Why give their opponent the opportunity to land a punch?

How are these politically polarized times affecting candidate debates?

I have seen some reports that Republicans have complained that the organizations that sponsor debates are biased against them. In April, the Republican National Committee voted unanimously to leave the Commission on Presidential Debates, arguing that recent GOP presidential nominees, including Mitt Romney and Donald Trump, were treated poorly by debate moderators. Something similar recently happened in Ohio. Senate candidate J.D. Vance and incumbent Gov. Mike DeWine have refused to participate in debates sponsored by the Ohio Debate Commission.

Part of this could be strategy. Perhaps Republicans are trying to ensure that the debate moderators are more sympathetic toward their candidates in the future. This could also be a signal to the GOP base. Criticism of the media as biased against Republicans is deeply rooted at this point. 

What role do debates have in the election’s outcome?

In terms of effects, it’s harder to determine. There are definitely some memorable debates and great lines. In 1960, the first televised presidential debate, John F. Kennedy appeared healthy and vibrant relative to Richard Nixon, who appeared sickly. Ronald Reagan in 1984 asked voters not to hold his opponent Walter Mondale’s “youth and inexperience” against him. But, given that voting behavior is generally so polarized, the overall impact of a single debate performance is difficult to know.