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The Debate Over Debates: Why Do Many Candidates Shy Away From Them And Does It Matter Anyway?

Ohio Debate Commission Debate
David Petkiewicz,
Richard Cordray and Mike DeWine

Four years ago, there were no debates in the governor's race. This year, the major party candidates were together, on stage, answering questions at least three different times in debates sponsored by different groups and media outlets. But that wasn’t the case for some local races where candidates for local and Statehouse seats refused to debate. 

Democratic gubernatorial candidate Richard Cordray and his Republican challenger Mike DeWine were part of several forums and debates this campaign season, including this one sponsored by the newly formed Ohio Debate Commission. That’s a group of media outlets statewide, including Ohio Public Radio and TV, non-partisan good government groups, colleges and more. Jill Zimon, the group’s director, says there was one key goal. “They came together to sort of plant a flag saying we need to have candidates debate and we want to stop the slide in how regularly candidates were declining debate invitations," she says.

Zimon says it worked. In the future, she says the commission wants to host more debates more often. And she says some in the group want do more – maybe even a presidential primary debate. But the success of the commission doesn’t mean the problem is solved.

“This year we did down ticket statewide candidates and it was hard," says Janyce Katz, chairman of the Franklin County Consortium for Good Government, a non-partisan group she founded in 1991. The group hosted several forums this campaign season where local candidates and those running for the Ohio House were invited to answer questions in front of an audience. And in many cases, only one candidate showed up for the event. “For the last, I would say, six years or so, we have found it more difficult to get people on the even years because, especially if they are incumbent or in a gerrymandered district, there’s no advantage to them coming for a forum," Katz explains.

Ohio State University Political Science Professor Paul Beck says candidates have discovered they can get their message out in a more comfortable, but more expensive, way – television ads. “You know the candidates like the ads because they can control them and they can be one-sided which is very much in their interest and I don’t think we are ever going to have a situation where we don’t have ads. The debates are a risk because candidates can say something every once in a while, that doesn’t go over very well. They can make mistakes. Some candidates who will be fine, fine office holders are not particularly good debaters," Beck says.

“All I can think of is little tiny violins. Really?," asks Catherine Turcer with the good government group Common Cause Ohio.“ You are running for office and you are afraid of going in public because you might misspeak? You know all of us will trip over our tongues and will not say things exactly right but it doesn’t make sense to avoid your voters," Turcer says.

Yet that’s exactly what some candidates are accused of when one refuses to participate in a debate or forum. And candidates often take to social media to air their grievances about it.  For voters who just want unbiased information, it can be a challenge, particularly since many candidates also don’t often respond to questionnaires put out by groups that try to compile that information. And Paul Beck says downsizing or reduction of local newspapers that produce voters' guides has made it even harder for voters.

The Debate Commission’s Zimon is aware of the conundrum too. “We definitely heard from local candidates and supporters of local candidates who asked us whether we could either do a debate or support them in being able to put a debate on. I think this is a question for the collaborative to consider," Zimon says. Katz thinks there is something else that would help: an emphasis on civics, a subject that has been scaled down in school curricula in recent years. How to proceed in a way that encourages more real communication from candidates in the future remains up for debate. 

Contact Jo Ingles at
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