In Election Season, Stations Flex Political Muscle With Local Debates

By Kevin Eck 

While last night’s final Presidential debate may be the most visible example of politicians taking their message to the people, many politicians throughout the country got their chance to show their stuff this election on a much smaller stage, the local TV debate.  Which begs the question, can a debate turn an election even on a local level and, most importantly, are they still relevant?

“I do think they are relevant,” Dennis House, anchor for Hartford, CT CBS affiliate WFSB, told TVSpy.  “Even in a small state like Connecticut where the odds are greater that you will meet a candidate, it is still important to see them in action debating the issues.”

Dan Bradley, president and general manager of NBC affiliate WCMH in Columbus agrees.  “I believe journalists have a responsibility to get the candidates to say something beyond their pat stump speeches and reality distorting commercial messages.”


You can watch the first of a series of Connecticut Senatorial debates with Dennis House as moderator after the jump.

Most presidential debates are remembered more for gaffes or well placed zingers, think of a calm and cool looking Jack Kennedy go up against a sweating and pale Richard Nixon or even Ronald Reagan’s famous, “there you go again” zinger aimed at then President Jimmy Carter.  Is a mayoral candidate as media savvy as someone like Mitt Romney?

“In our fast-moving media culture, images matter,” said Joanne Ostrow, TV Critic for the Denver Post.  “Of course issues matter, ultimately, but in a 90-minute televised debate forum, the appearances, the tics, the jabs and the zingers tend to get more attention at a very primal level.”

Getting a candidate to talk about the issues at hand is as much a challenge for a presidential moderator as it is for one at a local level, “We had a senate candidate known for her views on Israel,” House told TVSpy.  “And during a primary debate nearly every answer she gave mentioned Israel, even though we didn’t ask any foreign policy questions.”

House also thinks social media and a sophisticated viewership make fairness a non-issue.  “Viewers pick up on a lack of fairness right away, and in this day and age of twitter and facebook, you hear about it instantly.”

And while there may be some doubt that debates can change a voters mind about which candidate they’ll vote for, Dan Bradley thinks they serve the ultimate purpose during an election, “We know there is only a small number of undecided voters out there at this point, so these things probably do more to fire up the base and get them motivated to actually show up at the polls.”

Below you can watch Dennis House moderating the first Connecticut Senatorial debate:
WFSB Channel 3