September 9

By Lauren Camera

Nearly three decades ago in the Michigan town of Grand Blanc, a man in a chicken suit squawked at President George H.W. Bush.

“Read my beak,” said the 24-year-old Navy veteran who had been heckling Bush in the rented costume at various campaign stops ahead of the 1992 presidential election. “Chicken George is afraid to debate.”

Bush had rejected an invitation to debate Democrat Bill Clinton, who at the time was leading the incumbent president in polls in nearly every state. He later challenged Clinton to four debates, sending the chicken back to his flock – but not long before being defeated by Clinton.

Fast forward 30 years. For a crop of candidates in decisive midterm races, the spectacle remains. But the debates might never materialize.

“Ideally, debate is the activity that gives citizens insight into how candidates think, how they communicate, how they reason and how they deal with disagreements,” says David Frank, professor of rhetoric at the University of Oregon who studies political speech and debates. “Debates, when they are properly organized and properly moderated, can offer citizens a great deal of information they can use in the voting booth. If we don’t have debates then what do we have? We have campaign rallies, we have advertisements and we have word of mouth. Those are notoriously weak insights into how candidates think and reveal.”

Yet with the 2022 campaign season in full swing, that’s mostly what voters are getting – including in competitive battleground states that could decide the fate of the Senate.

According to an analysis by Politico, debates took place ahead of the 2020 election in more than a dozen states with competitive Senate races – and many occurred as early as September, including in Kansas, Maine, Montana and North Carolina.

As it stands, candidates plan to face off in confirmed debates in just two competitive Senate races: Arizona and Colorado.

In Pennsylvania, where President Joe Biden visited three times last week – including for a rare primetime speech in Philadelphia, where he outlined the risks to democracy that former President Donald Trump and his “MAGA Republicans” pose outside of the very hall where the Declaration of Independence was debated – the Trump-backed Senate candidate and celebrity doctor Mehmet Oz is slamming Lt. Gov. John Fetterman, the state’s Democratic Senate nominee, for so far refusing to agree on a date to debate.

“He’s insulting the voters of Pennsylvania by dodging debate, he’s dodging their questions and dodging questions from the press,” Oz said earlier this week on Fox News. “His campaign says he’s doing fine and he said that as well. Yet he doesn’t debate, I can only assume because he wants to avoid answering for some of the far-left radical comments he’s made. But if he is sick, then he’s been lying to us as well. So either way, this isn’t about health. It’s about honor and integrity and honesty.”

Fetterman suffered a stroke in May and only restarted his campaign in earnest last month in a race that polls show tightening to single digits. In recent days, Fetterman has said he plans to debate Oz and would prefer to do so on a major TV network in late October, which would give him and his medical team enough time to sort out auditory difficulties stemming from his stroke.

Political strategists have acknowledged the major risk Oz and his campaign are taking in attacking Fetterman over a serious health issue. Until now, the two candidates have been sparring over social media, with Fetterman characterizing Oz as an out-of-touch imposter who owns nearly a dozen homes and serves crudité at cocktail parties.

“It was just simply only ever been about addressing some of the lingering issues of the stroke, the auditory processing, and we’re going to be able to work that out,” Fetterman told Business Insider this week. “This whole thing has been about Dr. Oz and his team mocking me for having a stroke because they’ve got nothing else.”

Meanwhile, in Georgia, incumbent Democratic Sen. Raphael Warnock and Republican challenger Herschel Walker have yet to set a date to debate as they continue sparring over the specific terms of the event. Walker, who is endorsed by Trump, refused to debate during the GOP primary.

In June, Warnock challenged Walker to three debates, one each in Atlanta, Macon and Savannah. But instead of accepting, Walker agreed to a separate debate on Oct. 14 hosted by the local affiliate of Nexstar Media Group, which promised him a live audience and access to question topics in advance.

“The job of a U.S. senator isn’t one where you know the topics ahead of time or get a cheat sheet, and Herschel Walker shouldn’t need one to find the courage to walk on a debate stage,” Warnock told reporters before agreeing on Thursday to Walker’s request for a debate in Savannah as long as Walker also commit to a debate in Atlanta or Macon and also agree not to receive debate topics in advance.

“The research shows that people actually do learn from debates,” says Tammy Vigil, senior associate dean and associate professor at Boston University’s College of Communication. “Debates may or may not move the needle on who people vote for, but it certainly does give people information about stances of parties, stances of individuals and key issues that are out there, when they are functional debates.”

Yet the ebb and flow of political debates has been long standing in modern U.S. history, with candidates polling far ahead and those who are incumbents most likely not shirk them because they stand to benefit little. And in the case of the most recent high-profile debates, the contentious 2020 presidential debates between Biden and Trump gave voters a reason to tune them out altogether.

“The 2020 presidential debates were not functional debates,” Vigil says. “Their utility is really dependent on who is participating and then how they are behaving while they are participating. They can be super useful, they can be informative and they can help lead conversation on key issues in terms of certain national focus. But when the people who are party to the debates are not willing to join in with that intent in mind, then they are useless and they are just spectacle.”

That’s what’s playing out in real time in Arizona, where Democratic Secretary of State Katie Hobbs has refused to face GOP challenger Kari Lake, former local TV anchor.

“There is nothing I would like more than a substantive debate on the issues” Hobbs told NBC News on Wednesday. “And we are still talking to the debate organizers about how to make that work. But Kari Lake is a spectacle, and she made a spectacle during the GOP primary debate and they, so far, haven’t proposed a format that’s gonna change that.”
Lake is backed by Trump and has denied the results of the 2020 presidential election.

“Voters were definitely turned off,” Tom Hollihan, professor of communication at the University of Southern California, says of the Biden-Trump debates. “It was just unbearable to watch. The lack of civility and the lack of what I would call really helpful arguments and the dominance of personal attacks definitely alienated many viewers.”

“But debates still matter,” he says. “As a communication event, they are some of the rare rule-governed events, where you put both candidates on the stage and they both have to submit more or less to the same type of rules and policies. They offer direct comparison between candidates and they demonstrate temperament and the ability of candidates to think on their feet.”

Though not yet scheduled, political strategists predict that voters in the most hotly contested battleground states, including Pennsylvania and Georgia, will get to see their candidates go toe-to-toe in a debate before heading to the ballot box in November.

“I am hopeful we can get back to the ideal of debate, which allows citizens to be informed on the issues they need to confront,” he says. “We are in a serious crisis of democracy, and we need to be able to figure out how to disagree without moving into the language of civil war.”