By Rob Richie
Both major parties have had record viewership for their presidential debates this year, and that is expected to continue with today's Republican debate in Las Vegas (at 8:30 p.m. on CNN). It's terrific that so many Americans are watching. We need forums that bring us together to engage with our common challenges. But debates rarely matter, especially in general elections.
Here's why. In primaries, party backers evaluate both likability and viability. It's the most interesting time to hear about real differences involving foreign and economic policy, and more narrow concerns that often are ignored in general elections. Voters will respond to candidates they like but also start coalescing around those who seem capable of winning, with debate performance often having a significant impact.
The general election is different. Under our antiquated voting rules, Americans' diversity of political thought gets channeled into two "viable" choices: Republicans and Democrats. The public understanding of those brands is increasingly polarized, with record percentages of voters firmly locked into one camp. Character and issues are secondary to whether someone is on "team blue" or "team red."
Take presidential elections. In most cases, each state's winner gets all of that state's electoral votes, and the candidate with an electoral-vote majority becomes president. No matter how much money is spent or how well a candidate debates, we already can project winners in 35 states. At least five more states will be locked down by next fall.
Even the overall outcome is decided mostly by "fundamentals" - that is, attitudes about the economy and the need for change. After studying all presidential election polls between 1952 and 2008, political scientists Robert Erikson and Christopher Wlezien concluded that "the best prediction from the debates is the initial verdict before the debates."
Most congressional elections are also locked down. Last year, FairVote's Monopoly Politics projected final winners in nearly nine in 10 House races in 2016 using a methodology that missed only one of its last 700 projections. The dominant factor is the nearly perfect correlation between a district's partisan lean and its partisan outcome. Throw in incumbency advantages, and we can expect the average victory margin again to be greater than 2-to-1.
For example, in Virginia's recent legislative elections, two-thirds of the races were uncontested. Republicans won every district carried by Mitt Romney in 2012, and Democrats won every district where President Obama earned more than 54 percent. Debates and millions of dollars couldn't overcome those fundamentals.
I take three lessons from these harsh realities.
First, reform the Electoral College. The National Popular Vote plan would guarantee that the candidate who wins the most popular votes in all 50 states is always elected president. It's been enacted in nearly a dozen states and can be in place by 2020, allowing all Americans to experience a close presidential election as one in which their votes matter.
Second, change voting methods to usher in a new era of choice and fairness. Modeled in a dozen cities, ranked-choice voting allows third parties and independents to contest elections without being "spoilers." Maine voters will have the chance to enact it next year for congressional and state elections.
A congressional bill also expected next year would transform voters' chances to participate in contested races and elect candidates they really want by requiring states to use ranked-choice voting in larger congressional districts. It would forever slay the winner-take-all "gerrymander."
Third, since general-election debates rarely affect outcomes, why not improve them? Their greatest value is in generating civic conversation that will enrich us even more if we add more voices and innovation. Free the debates - and improve our democracy.