How important are debates?

Associated Press PhotoRepublican presidential candidate Donald Trump speaks to the National Guard Association of the United States on Monday in Baltimore.

The presidential debates are drawing neigh; so, here’s my take. This has been such an extraordinary campaign season; I doubt that anyone knows what will happen when our two major party candidates actually face each other on the stage but my guess is, it will be the highest TV viewership rating in debate history!

All of the mud-slinging, all of the never before heard rhetoric being exchanged, the largest unfavorable numbers of any previous presidential candidates and all of the poll numbers tightening up; has the media and quite frankly most of us expecting quite a show. Never one to let a dramatic opportunity pass him by, Trump indicated that he might not be in attendance at the debates at all.

While initially citing scheduling conflicts with football game broadcasts, thus potentially limiting viewership, he then divulged the more probable reason for the holdout: the identities of the journalists who will be sitting in the moderator’s chair.

“I'll have to see who the moderators are,” Trump told Time magazine last month. “Yeah, I would say that certain moderators would be unacceptable, absolutely.”

Had he not pulled out of one of the Republican primary debates, I doubt that anyone would have taken him seriously. But, he did and we do!

Trump has now committed to the three debates stating, “I expect to do all three. I look forward to the debates,” Trump told reporters in Ohio on Monday. “I think it is an important element of what we’re doing. I think you have an obligation to do the debates.”

All of this made me wonder; who does choose the moderators? I learned that there is a “Commission on Presidential Debates” that decides who the moderators will be for each debate.

This past week, the commissions’ choices have been made public: NBC’s Lester Holt will moderate the first debate on Sept. 26 at Hofstra University in Hempstead, N.Y.; ABC’s Martha Raddatz and CNN’s Anderson Cooper will lead a town-hall-style forum at Washington University in St. Louis on Oct. 9; and Fox News’s Chris Wallace will moderate the final debate on Oct. 19 at the University of Nevada at Las Vegas.

But will any of this really make a difference? A bad performance at one debate might cause some trepidation (remember Obama’s dismal performance at the first debate with Romney) but overall, to my recollection, debates have never significantly changed the numbers. I have always thought that if you are for a candidate before the debate, no matter what is or isn’t said, you are still for that candidate after the debate.

This year just might be different. With so many voters undecided and or indicating that they will probably be voting against rather than for one candidate or the other; perhaps these upcoming debates will take on more importance.

If nothing else, I think there is one thing of which we can be certain, scads of people will be watching and my guess is they will be given quite a show.

Wendy J. Levenfeld is a published novelist, playwright and columnist. Comments can be addressed to

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