FLORIDA — Former Miami Herald humor columnist Dave Barry once wrote: “I can win an argument on any topic, against any opponent. People know this, and steer clear of me at parties. Often, as a sign of their great respect, they don’t even invite me.”
In Florida, candidates are invited to the party—debates—they just refuse to go. When it comes to debating in the Sunshine State, candidates for federal office are saying, “No.” It is becoming a troubling trend.
In June, candidates for US Senate and two Congressional seats declined to participate in media-sponsored political debates. Is this an indication that these debates no longer have the cachet they once had? Is this a sign of the diminishing influence of the news media? Or is it simply a campaign strategy that works?
On June 7, the campaign of US Senate candidate Connie Mack IV said the Republican congressman would not participate in a statewide televised debate because, “It’s clear the race for the US Senate in Florida is now between Connie Mack, the Republican, and Bill Nelson, the Democrat.” (Mack is well ahead in Republican primary polls and has Jeb Bush’s endorsement).
The debate was to be hosted by the Tampa Bay Times, Bay News 9, and Florida’s PBS stations. It is the kind of debate that in previous election cycles candidates would have been reluctant to ignore. They might have squabbled over the timing and format but ultimately candidates would have felt compelled to participate.
Mack also declined a statewide debate hosted by Leadership Florida and the Florida Press Association. In so doing, he was taking a page from the 1988 campaign of his father, Connie Mack III, who refused to debate his rival (albeit a minor one) for the GOP nomination. After Mack IV refused to debate, the Tampa Bay Times (a debate host) published an editorial critical of the decision. Wrote the Times:
US Rep. Connie Mack IV was invited this week to a statewide televised debate co-hosted by the Tampa Bay Times and set for July 26. Mack immediately declined to participate, claiming it is clear he already has won the Aug. 14 Republican primary and will face incumbent Democratic Sen. Bill Nelson in November. Clear to whom? It is Republican primary voters who will decide whom they want to run for the Senate, not a lawmaker with a famous name and a modest record of public service.
Voters expect candidates to explain their positions and debate their opponents. On the way to clinching the Republican presidential nomination, Mitt Romney participated in more than 20 candidate forums and debates. And there are three other credible Republican Senate candidates: former Sen. George LeMieux, Mike McCalister and former Rep. Dave Weldon.
Unfortunately for the media and the other debate hosts, Mack’s gamble paid off. Within days of his refusal to debate, his leading rival for the GOP nomination—former US Sen. George LeMieux—dropped out. LeMieux, whose campaign already was struggling, admitted that without a statewide debate he had little chance of overtaking Mack.
Two front-running Congressional candidates also recently declared their intention not to participate in media debates. Both Republican US Rep. Allen West (in the District 18 race) and Democrat Lois Frankel (in the District 22 race) said they would not debate their primary opponents in forums hosted by WPTV-News Channel 5 (where I offer political analysis) and The Palm Beach Post (where I was a political editor for years).
In an editorial response, Post editorial page editor Randy Schultz, wrote that “front-runner status does not entitle anyone to duck a public forum with a qualified opponent.”
The unwillingness of some Florida candidates to participate in what have always been major debates aimed at informing voters is particularly surprising in an election cycle where the GOP candidates for president held 27 debates—sometimes two per week.
Adam Smith, the long-time political editor of the Tampa Bay Times says that candidates who refuse to debate are showing “arrogance” and it is a “disservice to voters.” Smith believes, he told me during a recent phone interview, that “frontrunners see no gain to doing it. Why give your opponent an opportunity?”
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.