Michigan voters torn between giving Republican Gov. Rick Snyder a second term or opting for his Democratic opponent, former representative Mark Schauer, will have only one chance to see the two men share a stage to debate their records. They’re lucky, considering voters in Minnesota are not getting any debates. Democratic Sen. Al Franken has even refused to participate in a Minnesota Public Radio debate at the state fair, a tradition that stretches back 20 years.
Across the country, in some of the most — and least — competitive Senate and gubernatorial contests, incumbents are refusing to meet their opponents in front of television cameras.
The dearth of televised debates isn’t for lack of trying: Media outlets have proposed dozens of televised forums. But this year, more than ever before, candidates have squabbled over venues, hosts, dates and formats. As a result, all but a handful of the faceoffs, rare opportunities for voters to weigh two candidates against each other, have been canceled.
Sen. Thad Cochran, R-Miss., did not debate his Republican primary opponent, state Sen. Chris McDaniel, and has not scheduled a debate before his general election showdown with former congressman Travis Childers, a Democrat.
Maine Gov. Paul LePage, a Republican, is threatening to pull out of previously scheduled debates with his opponent, Democratic Rep. Michael Michaud, ostensibly because a group running ads on Michaud’s behalf accused LePage of describing Social Security and Medicaid as forms of welfare. In Ohio, the campaign of Republican Gov. John Kasich — sitting on a 20-point lead — said last week it would refuse to debate his opponent, Cuyahoga County Executive Ed FitzGerald, a Democrat.
California Gov. Jerry Brown, a Democrat, has agreed to only one debate with former Bush administration official Neel Kashkari, a Republican, as he seeks support from voters in the country’s largest state — insisting it take place on the first Thursday of September, opposite the first NFL game of the season.
In many of these cases, incumbents are rejecting debates they, or their predecessors, had readily agreed to in the past. Voters who rely on debates to clarify their thinking, to connect with a candidate or to get answers to questions candidates choose not to discuss on the campaign trail will have to make their decisions without that input.
The troubling trend of debate-skipping is not limited to one party, one region or one type of officeholder. It is happening in close-fought campaigns and blowouts alike.
“There are fewer debates in competitive races” this year, said David Yepsen, director of the Paul Simon Public Policy Institute at Southern Illinois University, who moderated debates when he served as the top political correspondent at the Des Moines Register. “I think consultants make a decision that we’re better off not going out there and exposing ourselves to a gotcha situation and taking a little heat … than showing up and making a mistake.”
In Michigan, the Snyder and Schauer campaigns argued over whether a proposed debate before the Detroit Economic Club would be a lunchtime meeting or a prime-time event. Either way, just five weeks before Election Day, that debate still hasn’t been scheduled. Snyder’s campaign didn’t respond to an invitation from WOOD-TV in Grand Rapids, so two weeks ago, the station canceled its debate.
The two candidates have managed to agree to just one faceoff: a one-hour, town-hall-style gathering moderated by the editorial page editors of the Detroit News and the Detroit Free Press.
Like Snyder, Republican Senate candidate Terri Lynn Land, trailing Rep. Gary Petersm D-Mich., has not responded to WOOD-TV’s efforts to schedule a debate. Michigan State University and the League of Women Voters canceled planned debates, too, after Land’s campaign declined invitations.
Colorado voters weighing whether to keep Democratic Sen. Mark Udall in office or elect Republican Rep. Cory Gardner will likely have three chances to see the two candidates debate on television — but only after months of atypical uncertainty and delay.
Udall’s campaign was approached by KDVR-TV, Denver’s Fox affiliate, in mid-July, in hopes of scheduling a debate for September or early October. Udall aides did not respond until Sept. 4, more than seven weeks later, at 11:47 p.m., declining the invitation. The campaign also declined a debate on KCNC-TV, Denver’s CBS affiliate, where six years ago Udall debated his then-rival, Democratic Rep. Bob Schaffer.
“Given that Udall had time to climb mountains over the August recess and that he has time to do a 30-minute sit-down interview with me for our Sunday morning politics show, it’s clear the issue isn’t really a lack of time but a clear — and understandable — strategic decision by the campaign to limit debates,” said Eli Stokols, KDVR’s chief political reporter.
New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo did not debate Fordham University law professor Zephyr Teachout before the Sept. 9 Democratic primary. Cuomo told the New York Times that he didn’t think debates were necessarily good for democracy. “I’ve been in many debates that I think were a disservice to democracy,” Cuomo said, in a comment he has since classified as a joke. On Saturday, a little more than five weeks before Election Day, Cuomo finally agreed to two debates with Republican opponent Rob Astorino.
In the hyper-scripted world of political campaigns, strategists on both sides approach debates with extreme caution. They are one of the few events where a candidate must think on his or her feet, in front of bright lights and thousands, if not millions, of people. Strategists negotiate with media sponsors and rival campaigns over everything from whether their candidates are standing or sitting to how many bottles of water the candidates are allowed to have — even the temperature of the studio.
Blame the pressures of modern media, experts say. While traditional debates were once moderated by well-respected, heavy-hitting journalists, today they are more likely to be helmed by inexperienced news anchors unprepared to challenge the candidates on specific policies or proposals. In addition, the pressure to cover many topics in a short period reduces the amount of time a candidate has to offer their perspective.
“People complain about the debates, that they are too much canned answers; we want more free-flowing conversation,” said Ron Klain, a Democratic strategist who has handled debate preparations for President Barack Obama, President Bill Clinton and others. “On the other hand, people want a broad range of topics covered.”
“The pendulum has swung towards more questions with shorter answers this time,” he said. “We’re seeing answer times in a lot of debates as short as a minute, as short as 45 seconds.”
Candidates seem to have decided that taking criticism from editorial boards for avoiding debates is worth skipping an event that offers them limited political value. Several campaign strategists, who asked for anonymity to speak candidly, said offering an opponent running far behind in the polls a free media platform would amount to political malpractice.
“Debates are not debates; they’re joint press conferences,” said Yepsen, of Southern Illinois University. “They’re dueling one-liners designed to fire up your base.”