‘No one really wins.’ For a supremely polarized electorate, what value do debates add?

By: - July 24, 2018 6:01 am

U.S. Senate candidates Tim Kaine (left) and Corey Stewart faced off in a debate July 21, 2018 at the Omni Homestead Resort in Hot Springs. The two are scheduled to appear in two more debates before Election Day. (Mechelle Hankerson/ Virginia Mercury).

HOT SPRINGS —  There was plenty of talk about President Donald Trump, boarded-up storefronts in Danville and U.S. relations with Russia at the first debate between U.S. Senate candidates Tim Kaine and Corey Stewart.

The two met Saturday at the Omni Homestead Resort for a debate sponsored by the Virginia Bar Association.

Generally missing from the candidates’ conversations? Specific policy ideas.

That’s to be expected, according to political experts. General election debates don’t offer much to sway undecided voters but will usually appeal to hardcore party supporters.

That may not have always been the case, said Geoffrey Skelley, political analyst at the University of Virginia Center for Politics. But in an increasingly polarized political landscape, debates won’t change most voters’ minds.

“No one really wins,” he said. “Everyone just relies on what their party says. It’s sort of a ‘Rah-rah, your team-my team’ kind of thing.”

In some ways, the candidates’ early campaigns are reminiscent of the wave of Virginia House Democrats that swept across the state last year. Those campaigns often focused on the Republican opponents’ support or connection to Trump and earned the Democrats more than a dozen new seats in the legislature.

There are few drawbacks for Kaine and Stewart in recreating that strategy, Skelley said.

“This is just another example of how nationalized our politics are,” Skelley said. “It used to be easier for candidates to separate what was happening in Washington.”

For Kaine and other Democrats, Trump is an easy target in states like Virginia where the president’s approval rating is low and the state is slowly turning more blue, Skelley said.

And on the flip side, Republican voters tend to dislike Democratic leaders in the U.S. Congress, according to a poll of Trump supporters UVA ran last year.

At Saturday’s debate, Kaine recounted successes of his five-year Senate career, like passing legislation related to pediatric cancer research at the request of a family in Loudoun County and getting federal recognition for some Virginia Native American tribes.

Stewart, a chairman on the Prince William Board of County Supervisors, spent his time pledging his support to Trump and promising to uphold his policies, especially when it came to the economy.

That strategy brought criticism from Kaine, who said Stewart would put Trump before Virginians if he was elected. Stewart fired back by accusing Kaine of being controlled by  “Washington elites,” like Democratic leaders Sen. Chuck Schumer of New York and U.S House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi.

During the debate, Stewart and Kaine briefly discussed health care, trade, abortion and the economy.

Both candidates seemed well-prepared for the event, said Stephen Farnsworth, director for the Center of Leadership and Media Studies at the University of Mary Washington.

The goal for candidates this early in a campaign isn’t to win over undecided voters, but to speak directly to the people who already support them, he said.

“If you can reach the people who would support you and energize them to actually vote, then the first debate is actually successful for you,” Farnsworth said.

Debates aren’t totally useless for undecided voters, Farnsworth said. It offers everyone a chance to see a new side of candidates.

“If you stack debates up against campaign ads or perfectly tailored public appearances, debates come out way ahead,” he said.

Kaine and Stewart are scheduled to face off at least two more times before the November election: Sept. 26 in Tyson’s Corner at a debate hosted by the Northern Virginia Chamber of Commerce, George Mason University Schar School of Policy and Government and NBC4 Washington; and Oct. 2 in Richmond at the annual People’s Debate sponsored by AARP Virginia, CBS6 and Virginia Public Television.

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Mechelle Hankerson
Mechelle Hankerson

Mechelle, born and raised in Virginia Beach, is a graduate of Virginia Commonwealth University with a degree in mass communications and a concentration in print journalism. She covered the General Assembly for the university’s Capital News Service and was among 12 student journalists in swing states selected by the Washington Post to cover the 2012 presidential election. For the past five years, she has covered local government, crime, housing, infrastructure and other issues at the Raleigh News & Observer and The Virginian-Pilot, where she most recently covered the state’s biggest city, Virginia Beach. Mechelle was with the Virginia Mercury until January 3rd, 2019.