There’s a lot of back and forth between the two campaigns about how things got to this point and whose fault it is that we’ll have the fewest opportunities to see the two major parties’ candidates debate since 2002. As a co-sponsor of the one surviving debate, we were somewhat involved in the conversation, and we still don’t quite understand what happened here.
Conventional wisdom would hold that Governor Hogan, as a popular incumbent with tons of campaign cash and big leads in all the public polls so far, would want to limit the number of debates. His campaign clearly sought to control the process by announcing from the outset that he would participate in two televised encounters and specifying which ones they would be and when. The strategy made sense for him — by publicly agreeing to two invitations, the governor could argue he wasn’t ducking debates while also seeking to avoid being pressured into more.
The only surprising thing about Mr. Jealous’ debate strategy was that he didn’t demand at least one in every county immediately after securing the Democratic nomination. His campaign coffers were sapped, and both Mr. Hogan and the Republican Governor’s Association were both already on the air with commercials seeking to define the race in the incumbent’s favor. He needed (and still needs) as much free media as he can get. It’s debatable whether the Jealous’ campaign’s initial demand that the debates be held in October, closer to the start of early voting, made strategic sense, but his proposal for five encounters certainly did.
Despite the release of emails between the negotiators by the Hogan campaign, supporters of either side can find a reason to blame the other for the fact that we somehow ended up at one debate. If you’re on Team Jealous, you say it’s the Hogan campaign’s fault for its my-way-or-the-highway attitude, and you conclude that the Democrat had to nail down at least one debate or risk there wouldn’t be any. If you’re on Team Hogan, you scratch your head that Mr. Jealous says he has a conflict that prevents his participation in one of the two debates Mr. Hogan did agree to. What, exactly, could be more important for Mr. Jealous?
One thing is for certain: A single, 60-minute debate between Messrs. Hogan and Jealous isn't enough for Maryland voters to get the full measure of these two candidates. Based on the format the campaigns agreed to, we’ll be lucky if we get to hear each candidate’s answer to 10 different questions. Given the wide range of issues the next governor will have to face — education, taxes, health care, economic development, the environment, public safety, transportation, criminal justice policy, housing and on and on — that's simply not enough. Multiple debates allow questioners to cover more ground and to drill down on areas of disagreement so voters can make the best choices possible.
It’s not too late for these campaigns to do better. If scheduling a televised debate is proving too challenging, there is no reason Messrs. Jealous and Hogan couldn’t meet in any number of other venues. Various universities, think-tanks, advocacy groups and others have expressed interest in hosting debates or forums featuring these candidates. In an age of social media and live-streaming, events like that can be as good or better at reaching interested voters.
Audio: Hogan-Jealous home stretch
We realize that, from the campaigns’ perspective, we’re making a weak argument. We can’t claim with a straight face that voters will punish one campaign or the other for the paucity of debates — particularly in a situation like this one when the situation has become muddled. All we can do is complain that democracy is being poorly served and fret that this could set a precedent for even fewer debates in elections to come.