Politicians and pundits, start your engines. With California and 12 other states holding primaries over the next two weeks and another 26 states having primaries between July and September, the 2006 midterm elections are about to heat up. This is a critical election, since Democrats may regain one or both houses of Congress, which would enable them to reverse or block the Bush agenda and investigate the administration’s handling of Iraq and other issues. While the winner of this election is a matter of speculation, one result is certain — it will be ignored.
Midterm congressional elections are the stepchild of American politics. Presidential elections are media events that build from the summer political conventions to an October climax with the televised debates and then the candidates’ final cross-country barnstorming continuing into November. Midterm congressional elections, however, generate only a fraction of the media coverage of the presidential campaigns since there are 468 races to cover instead of one and no debates or “whistle stop” tours to focus media attention.
Consider, for example, the 1998 midterm elections which not only would define the national political agenda for the next two years and, given the Republicans’ frenzy over impeachment, also had the potential to decide who would be president. Yet the election received only 14 percent of the news coverage of the prior tepid presidential campaign and that year more Americans watched the finale of Seinfeld — a show about nothing — than voted in the election.
This has gotten worse as networks cut back their political coverage. Network news coverage of midterm elections has dropped from an average of 8.1 minutes of coverage per night in 1994 to only two minutes in 1998 and 4.25 minutes in 2002. The results in 2002 would have been about the same as 1998 were it not for the drama of Minnesota Senator Paul Wellstone’s plane crash and New Jersey Senator Robert Torricelli’s withdrawal in the campaign’s final weeks.
This disparity begs the question as to why we have nationally televised debates for presidential elections but not for the midterm congressional elections that follow. There have been televised debates in every presidential election since 1976. The institutionalization of these debates has been valuable to the voters as, for example, more than 62 million people watched the first Bush-Kerry debate. The debates are important because they afford voters a rare opportunity to hear the candidates speak on an array of issues — instead of the sound bytes that often prevail during the rest of the campaign.
Establishing nationally-televised debates for midterm elections will yield the same benefits as the presidential debates and, hopefully, increase the historically lower voter turnouts for these important elections. The parties should follow the model of the presidential debates and establish a bipartisan commission to select venues and procedures. I recommend four regional debates covering the Northeast, South, Midwest and West which would vary between a town hall and moderator format.
John Kennedy once said that the “ignorance of one voter in a democracy impairs the security of all.” Televised midterm debates would allow voters to view the election in its national context and make an informed decision on the critical issues of the day. Midterm debates also would give national and local media a focal point through which it can easily increase its paltry coverage of the midterm elections.
Can anyone seriously believe that having 42 million fewer voters in midterm elections is a good thing? Does anyone contend that the challenges that confront us today — Iraq, nuclear proliferation, the budget deficit — are any less pressing than the challenges we faced two year ago or will face in 2008?
Our future is just as important in midterm years as in presidential election years, as is our obligation to shape it.