Debates are great in theory. You’d like to think that voters care about how their potential leaders answer important questions of the day?
But honestly: When has a debate changed the outcome of a Columbia County election?
In nearly 20 years of following Hudson and outlying towns’ politics, I can't recall it happening. Many towns don't have debates at all. Or sometimes the loser of the debate wins the election.
For example In 2005, many thought Grandinetti was the more able debater. But Tracy won the race for Hudson Mayor. Voters are not necessarily looking for the same qualities in a mayor which make a good debater.
Generally what happens at these things is that the audience consists of each candidates’ partisans plus a handful of undecideds. These partisans write down leading, slanted questions which the moderator is often forced to read for lack of anything else. Candidates will bring prepared answers for these questions, or read from whatever notes they have for a list of issues.
More people will watch the debate if it is televised. But it’s usually pretty dismal TV; and few have the patience to sit through 90 minutes of lackluster debate (with poor audio and camerawork) when there is so much else to watch.
It would be better to have the moderator ask the questions, IMHO, and to disallow the use of notes. But again, for all the heavy breathing over debates each year, I doubt in local elections they carry much weight.
People tend to vote on personal allegiances, friend recommendations, direct outreach by the candidates (e.g. door to door), general impressions of the candidates' characters, and sometimes (lastly) hot-button issues if there are any.