Democratic gubernatorial candidate Ben Jealous was the one with all the pressure on him coming into Monday’s TV debate with Gov. Larry Hogan. He was trailing by 22 points in the latest poll after getting pounded for months as an extremist in TV attack ads without responding.
The good news for Democrats: In TV terms, Jealous had a good debate with one great moment that some viewers will surely remember when they go to vote.
The bad news: Hogan is a very savvy debater despite his easy-going, I’m-just-a-regular-guy TV persona, and he had a solid debate, too, despite a fairly serious mistake at the start. Overall, the incumbent’s performance was strong enough to parry most of the best media moves made by Jealous.
The Democrat came out smiling. In fact, in the opening introductory shot, he appeared almost to be grinning. Maybe it was too much. But after all those attack ads trying to make him look scary, there was nothing wrong with erring on the side of too much of a smile.
The former CEO of the NAACP made another wise choice right off the bat in addressing Hogan as “sir.”
Jealous knew he had to go after Hogan hard, but the danger was that if he looked too aggressive he might fit the caricature of him in those attack ads. Using “sir” to address the incumbent helped create the space for him to be critical without seeming nasty.
Hogan, on the other hand, made a serious mistake at the start in responding with a tone of condescension to Jealous as well as one of the reporters asking questions, Ovetta Wiggins, of The Washington Post.
In response to her first question about a need to grow the private sector in and raise wages, Hogan said, “So, you’re not right on the facts there, Ovetta.”
It sounded patronizing to me.
When Jealous responded to the reporter’s question, he began by saying, “Actually, I think Ms. Wiggins is right on the facts, Governor.”
I’m sure the difference in addressing and referring to the questioner as Ovetta or Ms. Wiggins spoke volumes to some viewers.
But Hogan’s tone was even more superior in responding to Jealous’s first answer by saying, “That sounded really good, but not a single word you said was true.”
Hogan followed that up with, “I don’t know where you get these talking points from, but they’re absolutely false.”
In a debate like this almost nothing is “absolutely” false or true. Both sides shade and spin the facts. In fact, by the end of the debate, I could not remember one fact that I trusted from the dozens both sides delivered.
Hogan sounded even more dismissive of his opponent in saying, “You can’t just make up these stories.”
The governor was taking that superior tone toward Jealous, while the challenger was calling him sir early in the debate, and that was a big mistake for a politician like Hogan who tries to create a media persona as Mr. Nice Guy.
On the other hand, at 19 minutes in, Hogan made a very savvy rhetorical move as Jealous started into what was clearly a rehearsed line intended to tackle the most serious job facing him in the debate: trying to undo some of the damage done with those attack by ads by exposing their imagery, which some considered racist.
“From Willie Horton to Donald Trump, your party plays from the same playbook,” Jealous began. “We see it in the hateful ads you’ve been running for months. You try to scare people, sir, because you don’t have a plan ...”
“Wait, wait, wait,” Hogan interjected, and it stopped Jealous in his tracks before he could explain what he meant by hateful ads, Willie Horton, Donald Trump and the Republican Party. Jealous had laid out the dots, but Hogan’s “wait, wait, wait” threw Jealous off balance before he could connect them for younger viewers who might not remember the 1988 presidential election and the racist ad featuring an African-American convict named Willie Horton that George H.W. Bush used to win the election.
Through his demeanor and appearance in the debate, Jealous did a lot to counter the image created of him in the attack ads. But he wasn’t able to totally seize the moral high ground and turn the ads into a liability for Hogan by linking the governor to the Willie Horton ads or the racism of Donald Trump.
“I didn’t have anything to do with Willie Horton or Donald Trump,” Hogan said when Jealous again tried later in the debate to revisit that theme.
It might seem minor to some, but I was also surprised that Jealous kept looking from side to side — at the reporters on his right and Hogan and his left — as he spoke. That probably looked OK in the studio at MPT.
But Hogan did most of his looking straight into the camera addressing the viewers watching at 7 p.m. when it would air on multiple channels. In a TV debate, that’s the audience — not the folks in the studio.
Jealous did have far and away the best moment in the debate. It came near the end when he said he wanted to address something Hogan had said earlier about him moving into the state from California to run for governor.
Jealous then emotionally spoke about his family’s history in the state dating back to 1941 and how his white father and black mother had to move out of the state because their marriage was against the law here in 1966. He momentarily seized all the moral high ground during that answer.
A TV debate can go a long way in changing the dynamic of an election. But for that to happen, you need a big winner and a big loser. Monday’s debate had neither.