Question 1): Gov. Gretchen Whitmer has proposed two debates with her Republican opponent, Tudor Dixon, on Oct. 13 at WOOD-TV in Grand Rapids and Oct. 25 at WXYZ in Detroit. Dixon has countered with a demand for four debates — the WOOD debate on 10/13 but three others earlier, preferably in September or the first week in October, on the grounds that hundreds of thousands of voters in the Flint-Saginaw-Bay City and Traverse City-Cadillac markets deserve a televised debate, and that all voters deserve an opportunity to hear directly from the candidates before absentee ballots begin to be cast in late September.
There’s been only one time in the last half-century when there was not at least one gubernatorial debate. In 1998, after Democratic nominee Geoffrey FIEGER remarked that incumbent Republican governor John ENGLER was the result of “miscegenation between humans and barnyard animals,” Engler refused to grant his opponent a debate and then annihilated the trial attorney at the polls in November.
The debate over debates this time around has Whitmer holding all the cards, in campaign cash and public opinion surveys, and the governor beat her opponent to the punch by being the first to announce she wanted two debates, which her spokeswoman contended is the “tradition” in gubernatorial campaigns.
Meanwhile, Attorney General Dana NESSEL has refused to debate AG candidate Matt DEPERNO for “ethical reasons.”
Nessel told Michigan Information & Research Service (MIRS) that the investigation into DePerno’s alleged involvement in accessing and manipulating voting machines, which has been referred to the Prosecuting Attorneys Coordinating Council, would put her between “a rock and a hard place.” (See “AG Seeks Special Prosecutor For Election Probe; DePerno Says Allegations ‘Total Garbage’,” 8/8/22).
The “rock” is Nessel’s oath of office as Attorney General and as a lawyer, which she said obligates her “to refrain from making extrajudicial comments that have a substantial likelihood of heightening public condemnation of the accused.” The “hard place” is Nessel’s belief that DePerno will bring up the investigation “even if there’s an agreement that we don’t talk about it.” Nessel said she’s not willing to break her oath of office, meaning that she would be handicapped in a debate setting.
“No matter how misleading of a statement Mr. DePerno might make, I will have to say, ‘no comment’,” Nessel said. “Really, it’s like going into a boxing match with one arm tied behind my back.”
What about the two Secretary of State nominees, incumbent Democrat Jocelyn Benson and Republican challenger Kristina Karamo?
It looks like nothing is going to happen there, either. Incredibly, Karamo — who is trailing badly in the polls and in campaign financing — has turned down a chance to debate Benson on WKAR-TV’s “Off the Record” on Sept. 30. Benson says she would be willing to debate Karamo, but Karamo’s spokeswoman said “four parameters” must be met before Karamo will say yes to any face-to-face exchange. Karamo wants “an event coordinated between the two campaigns; a neutral territory; agreed-to time and date; aired live and a moderator of choice” from both campaigns.
So, with debates in doubt up and down the board, or, if there are any, h0w many, the ultimate question should be asked:
DO DEBATES MATTER AT ALL? Yes, the news media thrives on them; they provide viewership, and it makes political journalists feel they’re doing their job by holding politicians’ feet to the fire. But what proof is there that debates actually educate voters, change minds, and produce results that can be measured in terms of victory or defeat by one candidate or another?
Answer 1): None. Hardly ever have they mattered. EPIC-MRA pollster Bernie PORN of EPIC-MRA says, “It depends on how many people watch it (and) whether any candidate makes a mistake,” but even that may not matter. Porn cites the debate many Democrats like to mention — the 1988 vice-presidential debate between U.S. Senators Dan Quayle, the Republican, and Lloyd Benson, the Democrat. QUAYLE was pontificating about his experience, noting that, “I have as much experience in the Congress as Jack KENNEDY did when he sought the presidency.” BENTSEN countered with this haymaker: “Senator, I served with Jack Kennedy. I knew Jack Kennedy. Jack Kennedy was a friend of mine and, Senator, you’re no Jack Kennedy.”
There’s only one problem with citing that exchange as evidence that it can determine the result of the election. Fact is, not only did the Mike Dukakis/Bentsen ticket lose to the tandem of George H.W. Bush and Quayle, but Bentsen couldn’t even carry his native Texas. Instead, he and Dukakis were beaten by a Hoosier from Indiana. If there was any carryover from that debate for Quayle, it may be have been that he was always perceived ‘out of his depth’ going forward, which hobbled him in his efforts to run f0r the Republican nomination for president in 1996, a campaign that he eventually abandoned (Longtime Michigan Republican operative Dave Doyle, a state GOP chairman, had signed up for the Quayle prez bid but lost that job before it even began when Quayle pulled out; Doyle recovered with a lengthy and successful stint as a Republican/pr consultant, a career that continues).
In Michigan, there has been only ONE debate that seemed to change the eventual verdict rendered by the voters in the general election — the 1994 exchange between incumbent Democrat Secretary of State Richard (Dick) Austin and his Republican challenger, then-Macomb Co. Treasurer Candice Miller. Austin had won six consecutive terms, beginning in 1970, and was considered unbeatable., but when moderator Tim Skubick of WKAR-TV’s “Off the Record” asked Austin a seemingly benign question about where the SoS stood on the issue of abortion, Austin indicated he was pro-life. When pressed to elaborate, Austin tried to walk it back, then indicated maybe he didn’t understand what they were talking about, and what did THAT question have to do with being SoS, anyway? No matter. It was a turning point — it fed into the perception that maybe it was time for Austin, by then in his Seventies, to ride off into the sunset. Time had passed him by. Of course, even this reading of the debate may be misleading; after all, 1994 was a Republican wave year, nationally and in Michjgan, Engler drubbed his Democratic gubernatorial opponent, Howard Wolpe, heavily at the top of the ticket, and Austin would have been on trouble, anyway. As for Engler, he may have been helped four years earlier, in 1990, by his debates with incumbent Democratic Gov. James Blanchard, who was a heavy favorite. Engler scored a shocking upset a couple of months later, by only 17,000 votes and change, a margin so narrow that it could be argued that the exposure that the little-known Engler got in the debates, and his serviceable performances, made him a credible alternative to Blanchard.
But those are the only two Michigan debates that can be cited between any candidates for any of the state’s constitutional offices that could be considered to have made any difference in the final outcomes.
As for this year’s possible gubernatorial debates, Dixon says he prefers to have an earlier date to capture more of the absentee voters, many of whom will have already cast their ballots by the time any October debates would roll around. Bernie Porn told MIRS that Dixon’s point is well taken, in that many will have made a decision before the debates, but he added he is not convinced that “she is going to be able to move that many absentee voters away from Whitmer,” given the fact that more Democrats than Republicans use that option to vote.
For example, Porn points out that, in Oakland County, 102,766 voters (60%) voted absentee in the Aug. 2 Democratic primary, while 68,461 voted in person. In the Republican primary, 56,110 (45%) voted absentee compared with 68,711 who voted in person. In Macomb County, 70% of Democratic voters voted absentee, compared with 54% of Republicans. It was 50% absentee and 50% Election Day in Kent County, both parties combined.
For the coming Nov. 8 election, Porn, a former state House Democratic staffer, predicts about 40% will vote absentee, although that will be down significantly from the 2020 vote when many citizens, concerned about COVID, opted to stay away from the polling place.