Debating about debates is a timeworn tradition in politics, especially in contests for Maryland governor.
Every four years gubernatorial campaigns bicker about how many debates to have and where to have them. Each side claims to be more willing to face-off more often, accusing the other of fearing too many encounters.
But in the end — after all the bluster — candidates in Maryland typically settle on at least two debates.
Not this year.
And that’s a huge loss for the state, experts say.
“It’s a shame for Maryland voters,” said Mileah Kromer, director of the Sarah T. Hughes Field Politics Center at Goucher College. The candidates “need to step back and recognize that this is a function that campaigns serve for American democracy.
“It should not be this jockeying for advantage,” Kromer added. “Ultimately these candidates have a role to play to inform the public of their positions. A debate is their opportunity to do that.”
Conventional political wisdom, such as it is, says that incumbents want fewer debates, preferring not to give their typically underfunded challengers the free advertising. Hogan enjoys a massive financial advantage over Jealous: $9.4 million to $386,000 in cash on hand in late August.
Yet the Republican incumbent wanted two debates, accepting invitations from media outlets for Sept. 17 and Sept. 24 televised face-offs. Jealous campaign officials did not immediately accept the offer, saying the former NAACP president wanted five, mostly in October. They say the Democrat had a conflict on Sept. 17 and settled for the other date later this month, adding that Hogan campaign officials refused to consider other dates.
But Hogan officials released emails of exchanges between the two campaigns’ managers in which October is never mentioned as Jealous representatives settle for one.
That decision confused Todd Eberly, a political science professor at St. Mary’s College of Maryland.
“If you have the opportunity to debate, you take it,” Eberly said. “If you have an incumbent in a strong position, like Hogan is, fewer or no debates tend to favor the incumbent. The challenger, Jealous, doesn’t have the money or the media presence. It would have been free media.”
In addition, Eberly said, the earlier debate date would be better for Jealous to help counter the TV advertising blitz Hogan and the Republican Governors Association unleashed in recent weeks casting Jealous as a tax-and-spend liberal and Hogan as a successful, moderate executive.
“Jealous is in a situation where he can’t afford to wait until October to change the narrative,” Eberly said.
When Hogan ran as a political outsider four years ago against former Lt. Gov. Anthony Brown, the two candidates met in three debates. That gave Hogan, who had never held elected office, the opportunity to label Brown as a continuation of eight years of former Gov. Martin O’Malley.
Even the state’s fiercest political rivals for governor in decades — O’Malley and Republican former Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. — met in more than one debate in both their 2010 rematch and in their initial 2006 battle when the Democratic mayor defeated Ehrlich, the first Republican governor in Maryland since Spiro Agnew in 1966.
The 2002 campaign between Ehrlich, a Republican congressman from Baltimore County, and then-Lt. Gov. Kathleen Kennedy Townsend was the last time there was only one statewide, televised debate.
For candidates in the lead, especially incumbents, more debates provide more opportunities for mistakes, Ehrlich said in an interview.
“If you’re ahead, it’s more dangerous,” he said. “You can make more mistakes than make more points.”
Audio: Hogan-Jealous home stretch
Ehrlich’s debate with Townsend took place on Sept. 26, 2002, at Morgan State University. Many Democrats saw the debate as a turning point for Townsend, whose campaign had been lackluster before she went on the attack against Ehrlich. Others say her harsh attitude may have been too much. In addition, a controversial situation at the debate distracted from its substance: Oreo cookies were distributed as a racial insult aimed at Ehrlich’s running mate, Michael Steele, who is black.
“That scene actually helped me,” Ehrlich said. “I think they overdid it.”
He said debates used to generate a week of news coverage. But today the media moves on too quickly to spend time dissecting every aspect of a debate that could inform voters.
“The news cycle is so truncated now,” he said.
Ehrlich said that social media and a plethora of other online outlets have rendered debates less important than they used to be.
“Debates were more important,” Ehrlich said. “Challengers are always begging and pleading and doing the empty chair routine.”
For example, during this year’s primary campaign for Baltimore state’s attorney, incumbent Marilyn Mosby’s challengers would leave an open seat with her name on it at forums she did not attend. Mosby appeared twice with her two rivals and went on to win the primary election.
But Kromer and Eberly cautioned against the attitude that traditional debates matter less than all the other outlets candidates have to present their messages.
“We need to be careful with this idea that debates don’t matter,” Kromer said. “Admittedly, this isn’t a prime-time event. It’s not a ratings boon.”
But, she said, it’s important to have the two candidates standing side by side — and, sometimes, going toe to toe — to defend their policy beliefs.
Eberly said Hogan’s ability to debate Brown three times gave him the chance to make it clear to a Democratic-dominated state that it was OK to support a Republican businessman.
“Debates are an important way for candidates to be placed on an equal footing and presented to the voters in a way that no one has an advantage,” he said. “The amount of money doesn’t matter.”
More debates give news outlets the opportunity to provide voters with more in-depth analysis on major issues such as the economy, education and the environment.
Karla Raettig, executive director of the Maryland League of Conservation Voters, said the organization that focuses on environmental issues “is disappointed that Marylanders will have such little opportunity to compare and contrast the ideas of the candidates.”
“Robust debate is a core tenet of a healthy democracy and one debate in such an important race is unfair to voters,” Raettig said in the statement. “The next four years are a crucial time for the environment in Maryland and voters deserve to hear the candidates address their plans on climate change, clean up of waterways, and the health of our communities.”
But too many debates can have a downside, said former Attorney General Doug Gansler.
“Sometimes in these races there are too many debates and no one tunes in,” Gansler said. “If there’s just one debate and it’s well advertised, it puts more pressure on the candidates to perform. And it focuses viewer interest.”
Gansler challenged Brown four years ago in the Democratic primary election for governor. He used his debate with Brown to hammer him for the flawed rollout of Maryland’s online health insurance exchange. At one point, Brown admitted that he should have been more directly involved in the effort.
Brown won the Democratic primary election but Gansler’s critiques were taken up by Hogan in his debates.
More debates present incumbents with more opportunities to “slip up,” Gansler said.
But more debates this year also could help Hogan cement his already high popularity, he added.
Still, with such a massive financial disparity between the two candidates, Jealous needs the exposure, Gansler said.
“Any time they’re getting free publicity is a good thing for Jealous,” he said. “There’s more upside to each debate for him.”
An October debate would have been better for Jealous than the Sept. 24 match, Gansler said.
“That gives voters time to forget,” he said.
The Sept. 24 debate between Republican Gov. Larry Hogan and Democrat Ben Jealous is set to be moderated and broadcast statewide by Maryland Public Television at 7 p.m. It will also be broadcast by WBAL in Baltimore and WJLA in Washington.