An Empirical Assessment
Steven H. Chaffee and Jack Dennis
From the standpoint of society, the future of debates between presidential candidates rests upon two questions: Do debates make a sufficient contribution to the democratic process to merit their continuation? If so, in what form should the debates be institutionalized? Social research on the 1960 and 1976 debates has given more answers to the first question than to the second. But, as we shall see here, those answers are on balance encouraging enough that the second question also deserves serious attention.
In evaluating the debates we make some important assumptions. First, it should be clear that our assessment is specific to presidential elections and the news media as they exist in the United States. We examine the debates' contribution to the quality of democratic choice under conditions of universal adult suffrage, a national election that is ordinarily contested between two major parties, commercial national broadcast networks, and an aggressive political reporting tradition in a press system that is largely free of governmental constraints. The research we draw upon has been conducted under these conditions, and we would not recommend that any of our conclusions be exported without qualification to other kinds of situations.
For the debates themselves, we do not assume so much closure. Although we treat American democracy as a given and do not argue its merits against alternative government and press systems, we see the debates of 1960 and 1976 as pilot projects that are potentially open to a good deal of modification. Still, it must be recognized that those debates, which were organized along similar lines, give clues as to what general format is likely to be acceptable in the future. When discussing the debates we necessarily refer to those that have occurred; but it will also be possible to discuss debates as a general institution