Presidential Debates: Are They Relevant?

The Institute of Economic Affairs (IEA) has announced plans for this year’s presidential debates in Ghana.

As I understand it, the Institute wants to organize separate debates for: (a) parties with representation in parliament (b) parties without representation in parliament and (c) incumbent John Mahama of the NDC and Nana Akuffo Addo of the NPP.

The IEA has a storied history in the organization of presidential debates in Ghana and they deserve credit and recognition for contributing in such a valuable way to our nation’s democracy. Laying aside the imbroglio concerning the structure of the debates, some have even gone as far as to question the importance of debates in the electoral process.

Though there’s a continuous debate about debates and their relevance each election cycle, they remain an important feature in any democratic enterprise for several reasons including:(1) debates serve as an important source of information for citizens (2) they serve as a measure of transparency and accountability (3) debates enables citizens to evaluate candidates on different levels—temperament, style/tone and policy/substance, (4) ascertain how candidates can think on their feet.


For political parties, debates hold the following benefits:

(i) the opportunity to sell their messages,

(ii) meet on an equal platform to engage and banter with their competitors

(iii) attract new audiences or support. In other places like the United States, debates provide a good platform to attract big cash and add new donors to a campaign.

In the ongoing US presidential primaries candidates such as Carly Fiorina and Ted Cruz experienced fundraising surges after strong debate performances. For lesser known candidates or smaller parties, this is a huge chance to garner equal audience and competes n equal footing with the bigger parties.

One of the biggest questions that arise during the quadrennial slugfest over debates is whether they have any impact at all. Existing research from scholars such as Kathleen Hall Jamieson and Jeffrey A. Gottfried note that debates do indeed increase audience knowledge on the candidates but we should note that knowledge increase is not necessarily the same as perception change.

Another political scientist Thomas Holbrook supports this assertion of debates serving as an important source of information. Another set of scholarly studies indicate that in terms of effect, debates have minimal or limited effect on voters. These scholars include James Stimson, Robert Erikson and Christopher Wlezien—all political scientists. They contend that debates only minimally shift candidate support in an election though they tend to nudge candidates in particular directions by adding few percentage points to a candidates standing.

There is also the assertion that the most impact campaigns experiences occur during the first debate. We are not sure what the situation in Ghana is in terms of experiments that measure media effect of debates. Ghana has attained respectable status within the comity of nations regarding it democratic efforts. No matter what one feels about debates, they remain a valuable and exciting aspect of transparent and liberal democracies.

They foster democratic participation and transparency and give us the opportunity to hear from the candidates who want our votes. Perhaps, more importantly, they also contribute in no small measure to fostering and cementing a civic and democratic culture that supports information exchange and access. We look forward to another interesting debate season and regardless of where you stand, let us come together to engage and continuously revise these practices in order to build a stellar democracy we can all be proud of and bequeath to the generations that come after us. 

2015 - Despite Group

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