New challenges for political debates

The ‘Idaho Debates’

By Melissa Davlin

This year, like debate organizers across the country, we at the Idaho Debates found ourselves with empty time slots in our schedule as a handful of incumbent candidates declined to participate, including some who had never before turned down our invitations. That has led to some soul searching at Idaho Public Television, as we look to how we can improve our chances of hosting successful congressional debates in 2024.

This year wasn’t all bad. A lot of people focused on the debates we didn’t get, but we put on a total of seven insightful, educational debates in 2022. In addition, almost every Republican and Democratic candidate in the primary and general elections agreed to debate; in some cases, those who wanted to debate faced candidates who either didn’t respond to our invitation to participate, or didn’t qualify. In the general election cycle, Idaho Reports offered interviews to those candidates whose opponents denied them a chance to debate.

And we maintain that debates fill an important role in voter education. Even if many voters have made up their minds on top-of-the-ticket races, our debates showcase candidates in lower profile races, such as controller or secretary of state. Debates also show how candidates react when challenged in high-stress situations, and require long-serving politicians to stand up for their records.

But we recognize that as long as high-profile incumbents are turning down our invitations, we aren’t fulfilling our mission to bring educational programming to the voters of Idaho. 

Again, this isn’t unique to Idaho. Candidates turning down debates is a trend we’ve seen nationwide. Still, we have started issuing invitations to campaigns, former candidates, our partners, and others to sit down and tell us what we could be doing better with the debate process. That goes for our partners in the Idaho Press Club as well. 

That doesn’t mean we’re able, or willing, to adopt every suggestion. And we have to stay within FEC laws. That means no “debates” with just one candidate if another candidate declines. But we are open to suggestions and discussion. Do we take debates on the road and host them in front of audiences across the state? Should we move to a town hall style? Broaden our partnerships? Shorten or lengthen the debates?

We have already made moves on some ideas. This year, we provided Spanish captioning for our general election debates, and we plan to offer both ASL interpretation and Spanish audio interpretation for the 2024 debate cycle. We hope that this chance to reach a broader audience of Idaho voters will be a good incentive for future candidates.

But our work isn’t done. If you have any suggestions or feedback, please reach out at melissa.davlin@idahoptv.org

Melissa Davlin is vice president of the Idaho Press Club, and is the host and lead producer of Idaho Reports on Idaho Public Television. She also moderates the Idaho Debates. The Idaho Debates are a partnership between Idaho Public Television, the Idaho Press Club, Boise State University’s School of Public Service, University of Idaho’s McClure Center, Idaho State University’s Political Science Department, and the League of Women Voters Education Fund.