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It’s NYC Mayoral Debate Season: What to Watch for as the Candidates Clash

With so many debates and contenders as the crucial June 22 primary approaches, how do you make sense of it all? Some experts offer tips on getting the most out of the candidate meetings.

THE CITY helps moderate the first live mayoral debate, May 13, 2021. Screengrab/NY1

This article is adapted from our weekly Civic Newsroom newsletter, which is sent out every Tuesday. You can sign up here to get it or fill out the form at the bottom of this post.


There’s less than a month left until the June 22 primary — and debate season is upon us.

Six televised debates for citywide offices are scheduled between now and the primary. The two Republican candidates running for mayor will face off Wednesday at 7 p.m. on NY1 — and our newsroom’s own Josefa Velasquez will join NY1’s Errol Louis and WNYC’s Brian Lehrer in questioning the candidates. You can watch it live here.

The first debate, among the eight Democrats running for mayor, took place on May 13. (If you missed that first one, no worries: We’ve got you covered with our recap of highlights.)

These are far from the first appearances candidates have made before voters. In the Zoom era, people running for office have had a particularly busy calendar filled with remote forums, panels and Q-and-A sessions for months.

But most of these upcoming events are the only official debates, which are organized by the nonpartisan city Campaign Finance Board, according to the criteria laid out in the city’s Campaign Finance Act .

But with so many debates and forums and candidates, how do you make sense of it all?

We’re going to lay out how you can watch the debates effectively, how they can be a useful tool before you hit the polls and how likely it is that televised squareoffs will move the needle in any races.

But first, here’s the schedule of remaining debates

  • Wednesday, May 26 | Republicans running for mayor
  • Wednesday, June 2 | Democrats running for mayor
  • Sunday, June 6 | “Leading contenders” among mayoral Republicans (more on what this means in a bit)
  • Thursday, June 10 | Democrats running for comptroller
  • Wednesday, June 16 | “Leading contenders” among mayoral Democrats
  • Sunday, June 20 | “Leading contenders” among Democrats running for comptroller

Will any of these debates be in-person?

On Monday, WABC-TV, the sponsor of the second Democratic mayoral debate, announced that its June 2 event will be held in person.

The May 26 Republican debate will be held on Zoom, just as the first Democratic one was. The rest have yet to be decided.

How to make sure a debate is worth your time

Watching a debate can be trying. They’re long, sometimes wonky and difficult to keep up with. It’s even harder with a lot of candidates and Zoom-related technical difficulties.

But debates can also be a helpful tool for voters, especially if you’re just starting to tune into the race and getting familiar with the candidates.

David Birdsell, dean of the School of Public Affairs at Baruch College and an expert on the importance of political debates, said the events are most importantly an “opportunity to gain impressions of the candidates as people,” in a way you can’t by just reading about them.

“It puts everyone you’re considering on stage at one time so you can compare them side-by-side, which can be a launching pad to explore your enthusiasm or concerns,” he said.

To give some pointers on how to cut through the noise, we spoke with Birdsell and three more people who know a thing or two about debate-watching: Samar Khurshid, senior reporter at the policy publication Gotham Gazette, and Amisha Mody Mehta and Stefan Bauschard, co-directors of the New York City Urban Debate League.

They offered these tip to help you get the most out of debates:

Before the debate: Do some research

Birdsell suggested it can be helpful to prepare yourself for watching a debate by doing some preliminary research on each of the candidates, if you have the time.

Good news: We’ve gathered all the candidates’ sites so that they’re easy to find. Here’s who’s running for mayor, public advocate, comptroller, borough presidents, Manhattan district attorney and City Council.

And if you want to get an idea of which mayoral candidates you agree with and what kinds of topics may come up in the debates, you can try our Meet Your Mayor quiz to see how your views align with those running.

During the debate

1. Listen for numbers

Khursid said to watch for specifics from candidates — like dollar amounts for budget cuts, solid outlines for how to reform an agency or roll out a new policy — and ignore wishy-washy language and vague promises.

Often, “nobody answers the questions” in a political debate, Mody Mehta said. That wouldn’t fly in her group’s academic debates for middle- and high-schoolers.

“If you don’t respond to what the other person said, that’s problematic for you,” she said. “In most political debates, they’re just pivoting to their stump speech, or a couple of things that they want to get out.”

2. Substance over style

Bauschard said in the balance of form and substance, look for the substance.

“In the academic debate, there’s a little more emphasis on substance. In a political debate, there’s a little more emphasis on form. But you have to have both. You can’t just speak and say nothing,” he said.

3. Pay attention to pronouns

Birdsell said one way to get an impression of a person, how they relate to others and how they lead is to listen to the pronouns that they use when they speak.

“Are they constantly saying I?” Birdsell pointed out. “Or are they saying what will we do? Or what you are concerned about?”

He said debates offer a chance to listen to “the way that they speak to you quite literally, what does that say about them as individuals and in contrast to each other?”

4. Who’s calling out whom?

Khursid also advises to watch out for “who’s getting attacked and who’s doing the attacking,” he said.

Why? “That gives you a sense of what the candidates themselves are thinking — who they see as their competition and who they’re trying to contrast themselves with,” he said.

For example, in the May 13 debate among the Democrats, the two candidates polling highest — Eric Adams and Andrew Yang — were targeted the most by their fellow candidates.

The Urban Debate Leaguers said to take note of attacks — but keep in mind that debates should, ideally, be “less about the theatrics and more about the arguments,” Mody Mehta said.

“You never attack the debater,” she said of academic debate. “We don’t focus at all on the other person where I think, in a political debate, they are looking to discredit the other person.”

Birdsell said taking note of who attacks whom and how someone responds can help a voter learn how the candidates handle conflict — something they’ll have to do a lot of as mayor.

After the debate: Don’t listen to the news right away

Weird to hear that coming from journalists, we know. But Birdsell said there’s a lot of evidence to show that voters feel more confident in their opinions and who they want to vote for if they turn off the TV right after the debate ends.

Instead, he suggested taking these steps:

  1. After turning off the TV, think about who impressed you and why.
  2. Write down some of those ideas or talk about your opinions with a friend. That can make your ideas much more concrete, Birdsell said. He recommended writing down behaviors and words from the candidates that made you excited or upset. This can give reasoning that can make you feel more confident in your opinions.
  3. Then, look at news coverage for what commentators have to say to see whether other perspectives help inform your conclusions.

How much do debates matter?

Birdsell said most research on the impact of debates has to do with presidential campaigns. There isn’t much evidence out there about mayoral debates. But, he said, anecdotal evidence points to debates having an effect.

If a candidate performs particularly well or says something surprising, they can get more coverage from the press. That’s especially key in a crowded race like the Democratic mayoral primary contest.

“A debate performance absolutely can impact the trajectory of a campaign,” Birdsell said.

Who gets to debate?

City law mandates at least two debates be held for each citywide office in each election, and the CFB has held those debates every year since 1997. (Yes, there is footage of that first one, moderated by NY1’s Lewis Dodley.)

If a candidate participates in New York’s public matching fund program — which uses taxpayer money to match political donations in an effort to level the playing field for new and first-time candidates — they have to take part in the official CFB debates if they meet the board’s criteria.

The CFB published its full list of criteria here, but it boils down to: money.

Fundraising numbers separate who gets invited to the debates and who doesn’t. The candidates “must have raised and spent 2.5% of the expenditure limit for mayor,” which is $182,150, according to CFB rules.

For the “leading contenders” debates, the figure goes up to $2,250,000. If a candidate doesn’t qualify that way, they can nab a spot by having at least $250,000 in matchable contributions, including at least 1,000 contributions of $10 or more.

For the final “leading contenders” debate on June 20, candidates have a third possibility to get a debate slot: Polling above 7% in a qualifying voter preference survey, the CFB rules say.

A few other primary-related events

Voterfest! The Civic Newsroom is headed outdoors

The next round of the Civic Newsroom — our wide-ranging effort to better understand what voters need and want to know — is headed outdoors. Join us June 5 in The Bronx, June 12 in Brooklyn and June 19 in Queens for what we’re calling Voterfest.

At each Voterfest event, we’ll have stations with activities and information to learn about how ranked choice voting works, the offices up for grabs, where you can vote and how you align with the mayoral candidates on key issues (through our Meet Your Mayor quiz).

You’ll find more information here.

What we’re reading

What are your election questions?

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