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Why Does Minnesota Get Skipped for Presidential Forums?

Minnesota hasn't had many presidential primary debates. South Carolina has hosted 21.

Why Does Minnesota Get Skipped for Presidential Forums?
(REUTERS/Jim Bourg)

Democrats held another presidential primary debate Tuesday evening, this time in Charleston, South Carolina.

This debate marked the 21st presidential primary debate held in South Carolina since 1948, according to a tally kept by Kyle Kondik at the University of Virginia’s Center for Politics. That earns the Palmetto State the distinction of third place among states when it comes to hosting primary debates.

What about Minnesota?

We’ve hosted one and a half — both Democratic. In 1988, Michael Dukakis, Dick Gephardt, Jesse Jackson and Paul Simon faced off at St. Paul’s World Theater (now the Fitzgerald). In 1992, Jerry Brown participated in a Democratic debate from Twin Cities PBS’ studio in St. Paul, while Bill Clinton participated from Indianapolis. Minnesota has never hosted a general election presidential debate, according to the Commission on Presidential Debates.

When it comes to debates, why does Minnesota get snubbed?
1988StarTribuneA1_640.png
A detail from the Feb. 20, 1988, issue of the Star Tribune showing the Democratic debate. (Star Tribune archives)

Few debates

Each presidential primary season, the Republican and Democratic parties organize primary debates between the candidates seeking their nomination.

207 of these debates have been held since 1948, which saw New York Gov. Thomas Dewey compete with former Minnesota Gov. Harold Stassen for the Republican nomination and was broadcast on the radio.

That debate marked the first presidential primary debate in modern history, meaning those that were broadcast on either television or radio. Before that, presidential debates were seldom held and didn’t reach nearly the same number of voters.

More than 90 percent of presidential primary debates have been held after 1980. More regular primary debates roughly coincide with the democratization of the party nominee selection process, Kondik said.

“Voters themselves became more important in selecting the nominees,” he said: Party operatives took a less dictatorial role in the process after the 1968 Democratic National Convention where Hubert H. Humphrey won the nomination without participating in the primaries, leading to outrage. Many states have switched from caucuses to primaries since then, allowing more voters to participate in the process.

“The process itself became much more targeted at a larger audience and it makes sense that debates would be part of that as a way for the candidates to make their cases to the general public and for the general public to decide,” Kondik said.

As for where the debates are held, Kondik said the parties seem to go to big states, big cities and to where the primary action is.

“It’s no surprise that Iowa and New Hampshire have hosted a lot of them over the years, and also South Carolina,” he said.
(Note: When parties held two debates in the same city to accommodate a large number of candidates, such as in the 2016 and 2020 cycles, those states were listed twice.​)

Primary elections by host state


Source: University of Virginia Center for Politics (1948-2016), U.S. News and World Report (2020)

Kondik said he doesn’t think it matters one way or another in the outcome of the race where the debates are held.

So why not Minnesota?

As a Super Tuesday state without a lot of delegate weight, “Minnesota, I guess, hasn’t really been all that important in the primary process,” Kondik said. “It’s not a huge delegate prize.”

The commission selects debate locations based on bids from places that are interested in hosting them. According to the commission, all but three of its debates have been held on college and university campuses.

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This year, general election debates will be held in Indiana, Utah (the vice presidential debate), Michigan and Tennessee, starting in September.

General debates

General election debates also haven’t been a regular feature in the presidential selection process until more recently, and Minnesota has never hosted a general election debate, according to the Commission on Presidential Debates, the nonprofit that’s handled such debates since 1987.

General election debates by host state

Note: One of the 1960 debates between John F. Kennedy and Richard Nixon was held split-screen, with Kennedy participating from New York and Nixon Participating from California
General election debates by host state chart

Source: Commission on Presidential Debates

The commission selects debate locations based on bids from places that are interested in hosting them. According to the commission, all but three of its debates have been held on college and university campuses.

This year, general election debates will be held in Indiana, Utah (the vice presidential debate), Michigan and Tennessee, starting in September.

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