George Bennett, political reporter for The Palm Beach Post, says the underdogs are still interested in the “earned media” that comes from debates. “Candidates have always had a back-and-forth about ground rules and other elements of debates,” said Bennett, “But now if you think you are the frontrunner you believe strategically it is not to your advantage to debate.”
Both reporters dismiss the notion that campaigns are refusing to debate because they no longer fear the wrath of the media. Neither sees declining circulation and viewership as part of the equation. (Politico, for one, wrote that Mack’s refusal to debate “incentivizes the media to scrutinize him even more—not a great idea in a state with 10 media markets and several strong daily newspapers.”)
The Post’s Bennett notes that campaigns are frequently trying to plant stories about their rivals and continue to demonstrate that they believe the media is an important part of the election. “I’m not ready to say we are irrelevant,” Bennett said.
Still, the relationship between the media and campaigns has been changing for the past decade. In 2010, Republican Rick Scott successfully won election as Florida’s governor without meeting with editorial boards. He also spent little time talking with reporters. Scott did, however, debate his primary opponent, Attorney General Bill McCollum.
Clearly the power that print and broadcast media once had to compel candidates to participate in debates has eroded. Republican campaign strategists tell me that they believe there is little point in meeting with newspaper editorial boards because they tend to be liberal. Campaign strategists for both parties seem to feel more empowered because of their ability to bypass traditional media. Ignoring media appeals to participate in debates is just another way of snubbing what they see as a weakened institution.
And what of the snubbed voter?
As the Fort
Meyers Myers News-Press wrote in an editorial criticizing Mack’s decision not to debate:
There’s something that doesn’t feel right about that
We think all Floridians would benefit from watching the GOP primary candidates debate each other.
Correction: Fort Myers was misspelled in the original text of this post. CJR regrets the error.