What’s the point of debates anymore?

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The year was 1980. The place was Cleveland’s Music Hall. The event was must-see TV.

It was the second presidential debate, featuring Ronald Reagan and Jimmy Carter, and it birthed a number of memorable moments.

There was Reagan’s chiding line, “There you go again.”

And his pointed question about Carter’s feeble first term:

“Ask yourself: ‘Are you better off now than you were four years ago? Is it easier for you to go and buy things in the stores than it was four years ago? Is there more or less unemployment in the country than there was four years ago? Is America respected throughout the world as it was?’ ”

The night drew a huge audience and undoubtedly helped Reagan oust Carter from office back when debates could do that. A whopping 80.6 million people tuned in.

It was the most watched presidential debate in history, until 2016, when the first debate between Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton had 84 million viewers.

Other debates brought in impressive crowds, too. In 2000, the first debate between George W. Bush and Al Gore drew an audience of 46.6 million, which was actually considered low at the time.

Until then, the least watched debate in history was in 1996, featuring Bill Clinton and Bob Dole, and was seen by only 36.3 million Americans.

As we enter into the fourth GOP primary debate of the 2024 election cycle this week, it’s worth asking if these exercises still matter.

In a stark contrast, the third GOP primary debate of this year, which featured five candidates, had only 7.5 million viewers. It was a 21% decline from the second debate, which only drew 9.5 million.

That means that more people watched “Yellowstone” in 2022/2023 than the third debate. More people also watched Sunday night football, “Chicago PD,” “Ghosts” and “Young Sheldon.”

The Democrats fared slightly better in 2020, with the highest rated ninth primary debate scoring 33 million viewers, and the lowest rated fifth debate earning only 7.9 million.

The purpose of presidential debates is to inform the voting public, of course. They’re meant to give candidates the opportunity to introduce themselves to America, to draw contrasts between each other, to tout their records, and to address their opponents. They’re meant to give journalists, usually, the chance to ask pointed questions and hold candidates accountable for their words and actions.

But these days, does anyone actually feel more informed after watching a debate? Or are we just looking for zingers and gaffes? Are debates education or entertainment? What are we learning about the candidates, other than who can score more points?

Far from Reagan’s effective “Are you better off?” question to Carter, today’s debates have devolved into a cheap calorie slugfest, an utterly useless cage match where I’d argue no one leaves a winner and voters are in no better position to decide who is the best candidate for president.

How could we be? The candidates are constantly talking over each other, ignoring the moderator’s questions and time warnings, and reaching for the lowest hanging fruit. As for the moderators, the questions seem increasingly designed to gotcha rather than enlighten.

The third GOP primary debate, held last month, left a lot to be desired. It was perhaps former South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley’s line to Vivek Ramaswamy — “You’re just scum” — which garnered the most attention, although I doubt most people could name the issue that prompted the line. (It was Ramaswamy saying that Haley’s daughter used TikTok.)

And remember 2016’s GOP primary debate when Florida Sen. Marco Rubio implied that Trump’s small hands meant another body part was likely diminutive? Trump replied, “If they’re small, something else must be small. I guarantee you there’s no problem, I guarantee.” Super helpful for voters.

Or 2011, when Texas Gov. Rick Perry failed to name the three departments he said he planned to eliminate if he became president. “Oops” became the moment of the night — and today, who can remember which departments Perry wanted to cut? Can he?

2020’s debate between Trump and then-former Vice President Joe Biden was another waste of time that journalists called “a hot mess” and a “dumpster fire.” Biden begged a blabbing Trump, to “shut up” and “shush,” while Trump called Biden stupid. When it was finally over, ABC News’ George Stephanopoulos said “That was the worst presidential debate I’ve ever seen.”

As we prepare for yet another GOP primary debate, Reagan seems further away from us than ever. And these exercises seem increasingly futile. Will anyone tune in? Why bother?

secuppdailynews@gmail.com

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