Asking the right question about who wins a political debate

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If you ache to learn who won that candidate’s debate you just watched, either you are asking the wrong question or there was no real winner. For the only one who should be a winner in a candidate’s debate is you, the voter.

One of the things that most disappoints me about news coverage of the 2016 presidential debates — and almost any political debate, really — is the persistent compulsion to see them more as contests or entertainment than as demanding choices.

We in the news media are good, sometimes thrilling, at covering contests and entertainment. We do it every day with passion and intensity on our sports and entertainment pages. It’s nice to have good guys and bad guys, inspiring performers and glamorous stars, heroes and villains, our team and everyone else’s.

But politics, all evidence to the contrary, is not so easily subdivided. Sure, come March 16, and again on Nov. 8, there will be winning and losing candidates. Some fans will be ecstatic, others bitterly disappointed.

There will be that famous agony and ecstasy. But, in getting to that finish line, unlike so many other events with which we’re all familiar, it’s less important to track the relative positions of the contestants along the route than it is simply to chronicle what they say, what they’ve done and who they are.

Sadly, this doesn’t always produce web clicks, page views, television ratings or newspaper sales. Declaring winners, speculating about losers does and polishing stars does. The result — even in newspapers, I’m afraid, though somewhat less so here than in other media — is a distorted view of campaigns that emphasizes personality over performance.

Consider simply the television ratings for the 2016 Republican presidential debates. The ninth and most recent meeting of the candidates attracted 13.5 million viewers to CBS. The first debate last summer attracted 24 million. The best the Republicans could do in 2012 was about 7.6 million for a December 2011 event. What’s different this time? Is it the compelling arguments differentiating the — once 17, now six — candidates?

Or is it the entertainment value and unexpected dominance of one of them?

This is not a new phenomenon. The Lincoln-Douglas debates, often considered the gold standard for public candidate confrontations, had more than their share of political spin and personal insult, and campaigns going back to George Washington have always subordinated reason to rhetoric. It’s unrealistic to expect that will change any time soon.

What does change is the way you should frame the question. Even if your favored candidate wins style points or a key opponent falters, no one wins if you don’t come away from a debate with a better understanding of all the candidates and the issues they tackle. The question in short, is not who won the debate you just watched. It’s whether you did.

Jim Slusher, [email protected], is an assistant managing editor at the Daily Herald. Follow him on Facebook at and on Twitter at @JimSlusher.