Debate Forecast: Superficial

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While cautious candidates and television’s culture of sound bites might drain any actual debating from the upcoming U.S. Senate debates, communications experts contend the forums still hold value for voters. This year, U.S. Sen. Mary Landrieu, the incumbent Democrat, and state Treasurer John Kennedy, a Republican, have agreed to four public exchanges.  

All but one will be televised, which translates into rigid time restrictions. Such format hurdles contribute to a general decline in substance during political debates, according to Dr. Michael Pfau, chair of the communication department at the University of Oklahoma and author of Televised Presidential Debates: Advocacy in Contemporary America. Pfau says the average political sound bite on the evening news has gone from nearly a minute in the 1960s to roughly 8 seconds today. That’s why candidates feel the need to rehash their prime-time commercials during debates. “Almost everything is superficial,” he adds. “It’s all about format. The essence of debate is depth of responses and clashes, and instead all you have time for are talking points.” Still, Pfau says debates have the potential to transform an election into a landslide. He cites the 1980 debate between Ronald Reagan and Jimmy Carter, when Reagan’s performance helped convince voters he wasn’t an extremist, as an example. Closer to home, in 2003, the final debate between Democrat Kathleen Blanco and Republican Bobby Jindal proved to be decisive. The candidates were asked to name a defining moment in their lives. Blanco tearfully recounted how challenging it was to hold together her family and faith following the death of her 19-year-old son. Many still credit that moment for Blanco’s victory. 


The Alphabet Soup Talks


The CEOs of CABL and LPB, the state’s PBS affiliate, will host their own U.S. Senate candidate forum at LSU on Oct. 12. The Council for A Better Louisiana and Louisiana Public Broadcasting have attempted to build a format that allows the candidates to “engage each other” while still maintaining a strict timeline. “There will be time allotted where there might be an opportunity for the candidates to address each other during follow-ups or other occasions,” CABL President Barry Erwin says. Questions will come chiefly from Erwin or LPB President Beth Courtney. University and college representatives in the crowd will be allowed to ask questions as well, but they will be screened, Erwin says. Additionally, CABL has set criteria for participants. The candidates must have recorded at least 5 percent in a recognized poll or raised and spent at least $250,000 on their respective campaigns. - Jeremy Alford

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