Probably not what they were intending.
The Utah Debate Commission is a great idea on the surface. Getting the media to band together in order to ensure that there will be at least one big debate for each major race.
In reality, it basically guarantees there will be only one debate in most of those races. If an incumbent can avoid their opponent except for the one officially sanctioned debate, why wouldn’t they? Multiple debates mean multiple chances they may say something stupid. A debate gaffe is a huge risk - one of the few that can really damage a safe incumbent.
Rob Bishop gave Donna McAleer her only one-on-one shot at him in a debate. He has no incentive to face her again, and he won’t. Same with Chris Stewart and Luz Robles. Don’t even start with Jason Chaffetz and his reluctant opponent, Brian Wonnacot.
The only real race this year is in Utah’s 4th Congressional District where Mia Love has a comfortable lead Doug Owens. She won’t do anything to jeopardize that. Sharing a stage with Owens allows him to take potshots at her. We’ve already seen her balk at participating with Owens at a Salt Lake Chamber event. There’s no way in Hades she is going to do multiple broadcast debates with Owens.
Debates can spin out of a candidate’s control. Instead of the carefully crafted public image, politicians can get rattled. They’re only human and can make mistakes. Nobody is perfect.
It’s high-risk and low reward venture, especially in today’s hyper-media culture, any misstep will be amplified and will quickly slip beyond the grip of a politician and their handlers.
The only major race this year where both sides might want more than one debate is the Attorney General contest. Democrat Charles Stormont naturally would like multiple chances to take on Republican Sean Reyes. Reyes might agree to more debates to raise his public profile. We found that 53% of Utahns approve of Reyes’ job performance, but more than ¼ have no opinion. He just needs to decide the benefits of more exposure outweigh the potential costs.
After watching Wednesday night’s debate, I certainly want to see the two men face off again. I thought it was a draw, and the public would benefit from another contest.
I’m sure TV and radio stations are scrambling to set up more debates between candidates, but that’s likely not to happen, especially if the races begin to tighten. If, for instance, Owens starts to close the gap between him and Mia Love, the odds of another debate go from zero to negative.
My colleague Bob Bernick suggested that media outlets could guilt candidates into more debates by scheduling a showdown, then offering a free half-hour of TV time to one candidate if the other declines to show up. That might be enough to cure a reluctant politician of multi-debate phobia. It’s worth a shot at least.
Time was candidates refused debate invitations on local TV stations at their own peril. Those days are ending as the “official” debate will suffice.
If they truly want to make an impact, the Debate Commission should push for multiple debates in 2016 - especially in the big races like Governor and U.S. Senate. If candidates know going in that they have to face off more than once, it will change the dynamic.
Right now, they’ve given incumbents a baked-in excuse to avoid potential pitfalls, setting up a defacto incumbent protection system.
Which is probably not what they wanted in the first place.