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Candidates are skipping debates left and right. Why that strategy makes perfect sense

In a primary election expected to have low voter turnout, time — not fear — is often what determines whether a candidate particpates.  

REUTERS/Rick Wilking

The value of debates is debatable. 

I came to that conclusion this morning after learning that three of the four Republican candidates for governor had declined to participate in a debate on WCCO Radio Wednesday. 

Jeff Johnson, Kurt Zellers, and Scott Honour have decided to skip the last debate before the August 12 primary. One the debate’s moderators, Blois Olson, lamented in his daily newsletter, “The trail of debate dismissals by candidates of both parties suggests something more troubling. Candidates have become so handled and fearful of gaffes or tough questions that they hide behind ads and media statements.”

The trail of dismissals he’s referring to is the decision by both Sen. Al Franken and Gov. Mark Dayton to skip the State Fair debates — and by Dayton to forgo the Farmfest debate.

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Here’s my take. 

Having covered a few political debates myself and worked directly with candidates during my stint as a political operative, I don’t think it’s fear or overweening handlers that produced the great debate dodge of 2014.

From the campaign’s perspective, it’s a question of best use of time. Particularly in a primary with a low voter turnout, a candidate may be better off with narrow-casting rather than broadcasting the message. (Although I would have advised a candidate to take advantage of 90 minutes on WCCO radio.)

As to the perception that a candidate is more spontaneous in a debate format: I know that I’m not alone in being frustrated at the lack of spontaneity these days. In this Republican primary in particular, the candidates’ responses have been predictable to the point of sounding hollow.

Olson said this is a chicken-and-egg question.  “Is it that debates are boring because candidates are scripted or are candidates boring because they are so scripted?” he asked.

Fair point, and it’s one that underscores the fact that in live debate a candidate has the opportunity to convey a passion that a voter cannot perceive in a mailing or even a television ad.

Furthermore, when a candidate backs out, he or she risks giving the opposition a brief moment of high ground, as the fourth Republican candidate for governor, Marty Seifert, occupies today.

“I understand why the candidates are not interested in any further debates with me,” Seifert said in a statement.  “I ask every undecided primary voter to listen to these debates and make a decision regarding who is best prepared to debate Mark Dayton and actually be the governor of Minnesota.” 

Seifert’s statement is about as close to a direct hit as any of the GOP candidates has made.  In a campaign without any sparks, one that will culminate in a low voter turnout on lazy Tuesday in August, the debate about debates is what passes for excitement.