91.7 Ann Arbor/Detroit 104.1 Grand Rapids 91.3 Port Huron 89.7 Lansing 91.1 Flint
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
Available On Air Stations

Debates represent opportunity for candidates (and media)… to fail


It seems it’s not possible for an election campaign season to glide by without a debate over debates -- the one-upsmanship between various campaigns about who’s more willing to throw themselves open for an adversarial Q and A rife with drama and wonkiness.

Historically, the most memorable moments of debates are the human ones -- Governor Sarah Palin in the 2008 Vice Presidential debate asking then- Senator Joe Biden, “Can I call you Joe?” or Governor Rick Perry’s famous, fatal stumble in the Republican presidential debate in 2012 at Oakland University, forcing an embarrassing “oops” after he forgot the three federal departments he’d eliminate.

The public says it wants debates. Candidates say they’re anxious to debate. But in Michigan, so far, in 2014, we haven’t seen any debates scheduled in either the race for U.S. Senate or governor.

Democratic Senate nominee Gary Peters is certainly trying to make hay over the absence of debates. It plays into the Democrats’ narrative that Republican Terri Lynn Land is unprepared for the job. Mark Schauer, Democratic nominee for governor, is also pushing to share a stage with Gov. Rick Snyder.

Let’s see if we get to witness some of the more colorful debate-about-debates shenanigans: campaign workers following their adversaries in a chicken or a duck costume. You know, too “chicken” to debate, “ducking” debates.

It’s pretty hard for candidates to entirely dodge debates or, at least, joint appearances. There’s almost always at least one shared event before the Detroit Economic Club that’s considered something of a “must attend” for candidates.

Four years ago, the Snyder campaign succeeded in keeping it down to just one debate with his Democratic opponent Virg Bernero. Sen. Debbie Stabenow successfully avoided any head-to-head debates in her reelection bid two years ago.

The conventional wisdom with debates is the underdog wants as many as possible. The frontrunner, as few as possible. Part of why incumbents don’t want to debate: it raises the stature of their opponent.

And, frankly, candidates don’t typically “win” debates. Debates are, primarily, a trial by fire and an opportunity for candidates to fail, to stumble, to embarrass themselves.

There are far more famous flubs than inspirational moments in our history of debates. For every Ronald Reagan “There you go again” moment, or Walter Mondale famously cribbing a fast food commercial to ask “Where’s the beef?” there’s quite a few more Rick Perry stumbles and Al Gore ramblings.

Much of that is why, here in Michigan, the candidates and campaigns insist on controlling the debates. They take all the invitations from not-for-profit groups, newspapers, TV stations, and then negotiate with each other on how many debates, how long, formats, hosts and questioners. All the power rests with the campaigns to set the stage.  Incumbents and frontrunners naturally get to control the process more than challengers and underdogs.

Michigan has no debate commissions like what we have at the presidential level, or what’s being used in Indiana. Other states have turned to news media cooperatives to try to force the candidates to debate. But, not in Michigan.

In large part, that’s because the state’s media outlets, especially broadcasters, prefer it that way. Historically, they’d rather make a play to basically “own” their own debate and risk losing, than to share, and cooperate to create a “command performance” communally broadcast for candidates.

There’s nothing stopping Michigan from setting up an independent debate commission. Certainly, if there are no debates, or way too few, we can blame the candidates. But we can also blame the media for being too parochial, including broadcasters who have federal licenses that say they’re supposed to operate in the public interest.

Zoe Clark is Michigan Radio’s Political Director. In this role, Clark guides coverage of the state Capitol, elections, and policy debates.
Rick Pluta is Senior Capitol Correspondent for the Michigan Public Radio Network. He has been covering Michigan’s Capitol, government, and politics since 1987.
Related Content