The debate over debates heats up in the 2022 midterms Debates are a tradition in American politics. But in this year's midterms, there are fewer events where candidates share a stage.

This midterm season, the role of the debate has changed

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STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

We're at the start of fall, which means crunching leaves and cozy sweaters and pumpkin spice and people who hate pumpkin spice. And in an election year, it also means debate season, which is a little different this year. NPR's Don Gonyea reports on the debate over debates.

DON GONYEA, BYLINE: The idea that candidates for office will engage in public debate is deeply ingrained in this country's history. In the legendary Lincoln-Douglas debates of 1858, a U.S. Senate seat was at stake. Lincoln lost that race. The modern era of political debates began a century later. It was the 1960 presidential campaign, this time with TV cameras.

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UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: The candidates need no introduction - the Republican candidate, Vice President Richard M. Nixon, and the Democratic candidate, Senator John F. Kennedy.

GONYEA: In the decades to follow, the idea took hold that candidates for federal and statewide offices were expected to debate. To not do so would hurt a campaign.

DAVID YEPSEN: Well, I think American politics has changed. Campaigns have changed. And with that, the role of debates has changed.

GONYEA: That's David Yepsen. He's a political analyst and longtime Iowa-based journalist. Yepsen has moderated debates on the presidential level and for local offices. These days, he says campaigns often see more risk than reward in debating.

YEPSEN: For many candidates, there is just no upside to this, or there's very little upside and not worth the risk of making a mistake, of having that magnified then for several days afterwards on social media.

GONYEA: Examples of embarrassing debate missteps abound. Sometimes it's just a momentary brain freeze, like when 2012 GOP presidential hopeful Rick Perry simply tried to list the three Cabinet departments he'd eliminate if elected.

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RICK PERRY: I would do away with the education, the commerce, and let's see - I can't - the third one, I can't - sorry. Oops.

GONYEA: Perry's campaign never recovered, and his viral moment lives on, on the internet, as one of many cautionary tales to future campaigns. Also, a factor in the shrinking number of debates is that you can't assume your opponent will abide by the rules. Take this moment from 2020 when President Trump constantly interrupted Joe Biden.

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PRESIDENT JOE BIDEN: I'm not going to answer the question because...

DONALD TRUMP: Why wouldn't you answer that question?

BIDEN: Because the question is...

TRUMP: You want to put a lot of...

BIDEN: The question is - the question...

TRUMP: ...New Supreme Court justice, radical left...

BIDEN: Would you shut up, man?

GONYEA: And at a Republican primary debate in Ohio this year, two Senate hopefuls got face to face, shouting at each other, literally bumping chests and using obscenities until the moderator broke it up.

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JOSH MANDEL: Two tours in Iraq - don't tell me I haven't worked.

MIKE GIBBONS: Back off, buddy, or you're going to get...

MANDEL: You back off.

GONYEA: So that's what can happen when candidates do take the stage. But more and more, debates are getting derailed amid pre-debate arguments over the terms. David Yepsen says that's when candidates simply try to run out the clock on potential debates.

YEPSEN: It's a safer political move to do your campaign with paid media, social media and door knockers.

GONYEA: This fall, in state after state, including Georgia, Wisconsin and North Carolina, they'll be just a single Senate debate. Same case in Pennsylvania, where Democrat John Fetterman and Republican Mehmet Oz have gone back and forth over what a debate should look like. Also, there will be no gubernatorial debate in Arizona, where Democrat Katie Hobbs refuses to debate 2020 election denier and GOP nominee Kari Lake, who calls Hobbs spineless. But Democratic strategist Tara McGowan, who now runs a left-leaning digital news site, says Democrat Hobbs is making a mistake. It's important to debate, she says, even when your opponent has extreme positions.

TARA MCGOWAN: We have to give the American people more credit. They can see through lies, especially if they are seeing both sides, if they are watching both candidates respond to the same questions and see that clear contrast.

GONYEA: David Dix, a Philadelphia-based consultant who works with Republicans and Democrats, agrees.

DAVID DIX: Democracy requires an exchange of ideas in a public forum that citizens can digest and then respond to.

GONYEA: But he says campaigns are more likely to respond to something else these days. It's the collection of data and what that tells them about reaching their likely voters.

DIX: Algorithmic data is more important than trying to win or lose a 90-minute debate. That's the direction campaigns are going in this day, and I don't see it coming back or pivoting.

GONYEA: Even though the midterm elections are still almost seven weeks away, arguments over the 2024 presidential debates have already begun, with Republicans threatening not to participate.

Don Gonyea, NPR News, Washington.

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