I Electoral Debates in the Americas


Alan Schroeder

The tradition ot presidential debates, hatched in a Chicago television studio in 1960, has become a standard feature ot electoral campaigns throughout the Americas. The institution takes many forms in the region: from party leaders’ debates in Canada to crowded fields of first- round candidates in Costa Rica to traditional one-on-one confrontations between presidential contenders in the USA.

The celebration of TV debates has served as a symbol for the return to democratic governance in countries such as Brazil and Chile, where presidential debates have been held continuously since their introduction in the late 1980s. The absence of debates, meanwhile, can indicate a lack of healthy democracy; it is no coincidence that former Venezuelan president Hugo Chavez, to cite one example, steadfastly refused to debate his opponents.

To an increasing extent debates are regarded as an entrenched institution in the nations ot North and South America. Debates between candidates seeking the presidency are now mandatory in Mexico and Argentina. Presidential contenders in other countries, though not legally required to participate, can expect to pay a significant political price tor refusing to debate—and that price goes up with each election cycle, as voters and the press increasingly regard debates as an expectation.

A wide range ot debate sponsorship models can be found among the countries of the Americas. In the United States an independent commission, unaffiliated with political parties or the federal government, has overseen general election presidential debates since 1988. A newly formed debate commission successfully produced two-party leaders’ debates in Canada’s 2019 federal elections, replacing the media consortium that had once put together Canadian debates. In countries like Brazil, Chile, and Colombia it is private media organisations that organise and stage campaign debates—sometimes out of civic duty and sometimes in pursuit of audience ratings.

While electoral debates are only lightly regulated in Peru and Colombia, they are subject to extensive legal oversight in Costa Rica and Mexico. In some countries televised debates are publicly funded and aired without advertising, while in others the programs are staged by commercial media outlets that view them as an opportunity to make money.

Debate formats in the countries of North and South America range from the press conference structure first used in the Kennedy—Nixon encounters to town hall debates in which the voters themselves pose questions. Rigid formats have been the rule in Peru, where cameras show only the candidate who is speaking and not reaction shots ot the other participants, and also in Argentina, where politicians have had only a few years to get accustomed to the idea of presidential debates. Debates in Mexico, once plagued by overly complicated rules and stilted formats, took a positive turn in 2018 when a newly instituted debate commission successfully adopted a more audience-friendly approach that prioritised the needs ot voters over the wishes of the political establishment.

Different countries in the Americas have different debate traditions—Canadian part)' leaders typically debate in both English and French, for example—yet many common denominators are shared across the board. Debate producers all over the world grapple with similar questions ot whom to invite, when to schedule the events, which formats to use, how to integrate social media into the questioning, and what to do about candidates who refuse to participate. Perhaps the most universal truth about debates, no matter where they take place, has remained valid since the time of Kennedy and Nixon: because debates are live and spontaneous, they cannot be easily choreographed or controlled. For this reason, voters and journalists will inevitably enjoy debates more than the politicians who bring them to life.

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