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Opinion: Where did all of the political debates go?

In this illustration photo a voter fills out their ballot ahead of November 8 midterm elections, in Los Angeles, October 24, 2022.
CHRIS DELMAS
/
AFP via Getty Images
In this illustration photo a voter fills out their ballot ahead of November 8 midterm elections, in Los Angeles, October 24, 2022.

This used to be the season of the World Series, fake cobweb decorations, and candidate debates.

The first two are holding strong, at least at my house. But the 2022 midterm elections have come up short on political debates. FiveThirtyEight, the political analysis website, says 58% of races for the U.S. Senate this year have had no debates. In many contests that have, there's been just one matchup where there used to be three.

Would-be governors are holding back too; a report on the governing website has concluded, "Numerous candidates for governor and other offices have decided that participating in debates is not in their own best interest."

Even when they do happen, candidates debates usually aren't real debates, so much as quiz shows without the relief of occasional commercials for headache remedies and walk-in tubs. Candidates prepare a supply of prefabricated zingers, which they launch in reply to almost any question, whether it applies or not. Post-debate news coverage highlights gaffes and awkward moments over policy differences.

Those who run for office can now reach the public directly on a whole range of platforms. They don't need pesky questions from impertinent reporters, or citizen forums where somebody asks, "So, do you believe in UFOs?"

And the public, for that matter, now has scores of options for what to watch or stream on a weekday night: cooking contests, dating shows, series about serial killers, supernatural events, or the party-filled lives of a superyacht crew in the Mediterranean. How can somberly dressed people talking about infrastructure projects and the tax code possibly compete when the FLOOR! IS! LAVA!!!!

Just as I began to wonder how candidates might be enticed back to the debate lecterns to dig into some budget priorities, I saw an unrelated story that might offer a clue.

Virgin Australia Airlines has launched a Middle Seat Lottery. Take a middle seat on one of their flights — one of those B or E seats that can feel as confining as Hannibal Lecter's straight jacket — and your name is entered in a lottery for prizes that include free flights and cruises, a helicopter pub crawl, and bungee jumping.

Instead of imploring or admonishing candidates that debates are good for democracy, maybe good government groups can just induce them to participate by saying, "Hey, wouldn't you like the chance to go bungee jumping?"

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Scott Simon is one of America's most admired writers and broadcasters. He is the host of Weekend Edition Saturday and is one of the hosts of NPR's morning news podcast Up First. He has reported from all fifty states, five continents, and ten wars, from El Salvador to Sarajevo to Afghanistan and Iraq. His books have chronicled character and characters, in war and peace, sports and art, tragedy and comedy.