Some Pennsylvania voters don’t get much out of the debates anymore


Ahead of Tuesday’s U.S. Senate candidates, voters are wondering if they care that some candidates have broken tradition.

  • Sam Dunklau

Meg Kelly/NPR

This story is part of WITF’s commitment to put you, the voter, first in our election coverage – talking with you about issues that matter to your community and bringing them to light. Members of a texting club that Sam started as part of WITF’s collaboration with engagement platform Subtext featured this story – and several are quoted.

To be successful, campaigns have always had to meet voters where they are. At one point it meant come up with songs touting their talking point. For a long time, that also meant going head-to-head on stages and in town halls against an opponent.

Over the years, political parties have called the debates an age-old American tradition. But during Pennsylvania’s 2022 campaign season, more candidates than not are driving a stake through the heart of the practice.

Examples abound.

Republican legislative and congressional candidates withdrew from the debates in Lebanon and Lancaster counties – one organized by a chapter of the NAACP, the other by the League of Women Voters. In particular, the candidates for the post of governor did not discuss because Republican Doug Mastriano wanted to choose their own moderators. He offered his opponent, Democrat Josh Shapiro, the chance to do the same, but he declined.

Although the candidates for the United States Senate have agreed to a single debate On Tuesday, Republican Dr Mehmet Oz criticized Democrat John Fetterman for refusing to train with him in other places.

But do voters lose if a debate does not take place? We asked this question to several people who are preparing to vote in the November election.

In the past, Michele Shapiro of Waynesboro in Franklin County (no connection to Democratic gubernatorial candidate Josh Shapiro) has been keen to watch the candidates answer questions about their policy positions.

But the 2016 presidential election changed his mind.

Then-candidate Donald Trump struck a combative tone during a series of three debates and exchanged sharp barbs with his opponent, Hillary Clinton. On time, moderators struggled to master both.

Mark Ralston/Pool via AP

Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton debates with Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump during the third presidential debate at UNLV in Las Vegas, Wednesday, Oct. 19, 2016.

“I can’t curse, [but] during the trump debates it was so Empty show, that I said, ‘This is crazy,'” Michele said. “It just felt… like it was pointless. It became the ‘winner’ [the debate] and I really don’t agree with that.

Since then, Michele — a Democrat — has tried looking at other candidate forums. She listened to the debates between Republican and Democratic Candidates for the US Senate in the spring primary.

“I was just laughing. They were just plain nonsense. They were attacking each other and there wasn’t a lot of substance,” she said. “That’s not why we elect someone. It’s not based on personality. It should be based on what they are actually going to do.

For her, it is concerning that some candidates have bypassed the debates, but on the other hand, she feels that events have not been helpful to her in deciding who to support.

“I’m not sure they really put themselves out there. These are all talking points, so I’m not sure you’ll learn anything new about them,” Michele added.

All of this led her to realize that the traditional style of debate has run its course.

Some of the candidates at the top of the ticket in November seem to have come to the same conclusion. Take the PA Chamber of Commerce and Industry Candidates Forum held earlier this month. The group has been hosting the event for years, aiming to give the business community the chance to compare contenders in major races.

However, only one candidate from each of the first two races — Democrat Josh Shapiro for governor and Republican Mehmet Oz for U.S. Senate — bothered to run.

House Speaker and Moderator Luke Bernstein mentioned the absences during Shapiro’s questioning.

“Your opponent is not here,” Bernstein began, “Ideally we would have a debate. If he was here, what would you ask him and why?

“I don’t know, Luke,” Shapiro replied. “I think the real question is, ‘Why aren’t you here? “”

The Chamber later said that Mastriano was not present because he did not want to speak with a moderator he could not choose.

PA Chamber of Commerce and Industry Video

PA Chamber of Commerce and Industry President Luke Bernstein speaks with Republican U.S. Senate candidate Dr. Mehmet Oz during a candidates’ forum on October 3, 2022.

“The Pennsylvania Chamber has invited all four campaigns to participate in a debate on the independent terms we have followed for decades. Dr. Oz and Josh Shapiro agreed to these terms, while we received no response from John Fetterman. Doug Mastriano offered his own terms of debate,” PA chamber spokesman Jon Anzur said in a statement.

Fetterman, the Democratic candidate for the US Senate, said he was not present because the The United States House had already approved Oz. When Bernstein also asked Oz what he would ask of Fetterman, the Republican took the opportunity to criticize Fetterman’s time as head of Pennsylvania’s Board of Pardons.

Mastriano and Fetterman’s avoidance of debates has raised concerns among voters like Gregory Young, an independent who lives in South Lebanon Township, Lebanon County.

“Avoiding a debate is almost a red flag,” he said. “Anyone running for a position at these levels should be able to answer a question from anyone and answer it knowingly.”

Gregory Young

Independent Voter Gregory Young of South Lebanon Township, Lebanon County.

For Young, the question is whether the format — where candidates compete on politics in front of TV cameras — actually helps voters like him make their choices. He said he and his two daughters found most of what they wanted to know about candidates online, well before Election Day.

He said while he planned to watch the debate between Fetterman and Oz, he’s not sure anything said on stage will change his mind.

“Television leads to a flash on substance,” Young said. “I think it gets coverage and more shouting from either person, pointing out the flaws of another person’s candidate instead of saying, ‘Wow, I didn’t know that. they believed in it.

“Just give us the facts and respect us enough to have an opinion and make our own informed decision,” he added. “Don’t treat us like dummies. Don’t treat us like children.

Communications strategist Nell McCormick Abom, who has advised governors such as Democrat Bob Casey Sr. and Republican Tom Ridge, said candidates are often asked to perform in front of the cameras. Dressing well and getting the words right can mean the world to influential groups watching. (Full disclosure: McCormick Abom previously hosted WITF-TV’s Smart Talk).

“A candidate’s performance in a debate is not final, because like everyone else, they can have a night off,” she said. “But if they really miss it, that would worry me.”

Like Michele Shapiro, McCormick Abom blamed the 2016 Trump/Clinton race for causing the debates to collapse. She said contestants are now encouraged to attack their opponents or avoid running at all.

“Those paperwork that we all agreed on for all those front row offices…have all been turned upside down, and it’s to our detriment,” she said. “It’s very chilling for those of us who believe in the credibility these candidates should be able to have with the public.”

With no debates this year, Independent voter Tom Maiello of Myerstown went online to research the candidates’ policies. But he’s disappointed that Shapiro and Mastriano don’t share a stage — and that Fetterman only agreed to one debate.

Tom Maiello

Independent voter Tom Maiello of Myerstown, County of Lebanon

“If you deliberately say, ‘I don’t want to participate,’ I’m less likely to vote for you because all we get from people are their ads, and the ads have become more and more confrontational and unforgiving.” , said Maiello.

Both Maiello and Young say they would like to refresh the debate format – things like Zoom chats with groups of voters, Twitter Spaces conversations or Facebook Live videos would all do the trick. They argue that voters should have the ability to speak directly and publicly with candidates.

Without some sort of candidate forum, Maiello warns Pennsylvanians are missing something important.

“It’s a dress rehearsal for what we’re sending you to do. It’s important that you have that experience and we can see that you can tap dance when you need to,” he said.

This year, only a few will attend the rehearsal.


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