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Next Election, Give the Public What It Seeks: Real Debates

By Mark Baldassare, senior fellow, Public Policy Institute of California
This opinion article appeared in the Sacramento Bee on November 1, 1998

When gubernatorial candidates Dan Lungren and Gray Davis agreed to an impressive series of debates after the June primary, the move was hailed as an historic turning point for California elections, one that might reinvigorate a hopelessly commercialized and packaged political process. But at the conclusion of the fourth and final debate in San Francisco last month, it was clear to most observers that a golden opportunity had been squandered. What went wrong?

It is important to point out first that it was voters - not politicians, pundits, or press - who told us early and often this year that they wanted candidates to debate. In focus groups last January, Californians throughout the state said they were tired of learning about candidates through television commercials, canned speeches, and sometimes questionable news reporting.

When asked about possible solutions, our focus group participants agreed that the answer was live debate, a substantive matchup of competing visions for the state and positions on key issues.

Most important, they wanted a role in the process: The majority thought candidates should be quizzed by people like themselves in an old-fashioned "town hall" setting. The critical role of candidate debates was reinforced in our Public Policy Institute of California (PPIC) Statewide Survey in early May. Looking ahead, 85 percent of voters said that debates would be important in helping them to decide who to vote for in the governorís race.

But by early October, and three debates later, only 6 percent of likely voters in our survey said the debates had helped them a ďgreat dealĒ with their election decision. Two in 10 said that the debates had very little or no effect on them. There is certainly more to this dramatic shift than the sometimes fickle nature of the California voter. What turned them off?

First, television stations throughout the state did not meet the challenge or responsibility of broadcasting the debates. Since most Californians get their political news from television, not newspapers or radio, live television debates are in theory the best way to reach and inform would-be voters. But most station managers either ignored these events or treated them as local news.

Not one of the hour-long debates was broadcast on a major noncable television station in every region of the state, according to the California Broadcasterís Association. Voters in the Sacramento and San Diego areas were given the opportunity to watch every debate live on a network affiliate, but this was not the case in the most populous parts of California. In the Bay Area, for example, only the San Francisco debate appeared on a network affiliate, while the three earlier debates were broadcast only on a cable station. In the Los Angeles area, where half of the stateís voters reside, the first two debates were broadcast on an independent channel, while the last two debates did not air at all on the network affiliates or independent stations.

Next, the debates were dull and predictable affairs for whatever small audiences saw them, and the format offered no outlet for voters to ask about the issues that concerned them. Both of the candidates played it safe, often avoiding questions that were posed to them by panelists and choosing instead to launch into well-rehearsed sales pitches. The candidate-to-candidate questions during the middle of each debate were in reality thinly veiled attacks on the otherís positions on wedge issues like abortion and the death penalty. Ultimately, we learned little about the candidatesí larger vision for leading the largest state in the nation into the next century.

Finally, the reporters who sat on the debate panels too often sidestepped major issues in favor of more sensational and provocative subjects or obscure topics that were of interest only to political insiders. In the October PPIC Statewide Survey, more than half of the voters said they wanted the candidates to talk about education, crime, the economy, taxes, and the state budget. But relatively few questions were posed on these topics during the debates. Instead, reporters asked the candidates for their views on issues like same-sex marriage and sex education. While these topics are not unimportant, only a tiny handful of voters in the PPIC survey said they wanted to hear the candidates discuss them during the fall campaign.

We have a serious problem here. Our citizens are turned off by the way political campaigns are run. They are voting with their feet by not showing up at the polls. Yet when the candidates, political reporters, and media executives of the state have an opportunity to restore a sense of objectivity and spontaneity to an electoral process thatís been badly tainted by commercialism, they donít rise to the occasion.

Itís too late to change the process this year. Instead, with this failure fresh in our minds, we need to figure out how to give Californians what theyíve asked for during the next election cycle. All of us - including the media and the candidates themselves - have a stake in reducing public cynicism about politics and improving the information on which we base crucial electoral choices.

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A California State of Mind: The Conflicted Voter in a Changing World

California in the New Millennium: The Changing Social and Political Landscape

Statewide Survey - May 1998

Statewide Survey - October 1998