Analysis: To Debate or Not to Debate?

Editor's note: This has been updated to note that the Abbott campaign as accepted another debate offer for Sept. 30.

Republican gubernatorial candidate Greg Abbott reneged on an agreement to a televised statewide roundtable-style debate Friday, accepting a different offer on the same date in a format more to his liking. His representatives told Dallas’ WFAA-TV that the campaign had changed its mind and would only participate in a debate with structured, timed answers and no back-and-forth between the candidates. The station, which had partnered with The Texas Tribune, wanted to stick with a conversational format, and the deal fell apart. But late Friday afternoon, Abbott accepted another debate offer in a format that suits him, from KERA-TV, The Dallas Morning News, NBC/KXAS-TV, and Telemundo 39 on the same date as the WFAA proposal. 

This is not necessarily the end of the matter. Campaigns argue about debates all the time. It has the advantage of showing them in conflict — who doesn’t want to look like a fighter — without getting too close to subject matter that voters actually care about. 

It does tell you something about where the Republicans think they are in this race. Abbott, the state’s attorney general, is essentially conducting an incumbent’s campaign, using his position to dictate the rules of engagement. Wendy Davis, the Democrat in the race, is attacking one of his rulings as a judge and his role in the oversight of a cancer research fund. He is running biographical spots with an endorsement from his mother-in-law. A debate with a big audience, especially one with open interaction between the candidates, would give Davis a forum and a chance to draw a contrast and maybe, get voters to give the race another look. Why fuel an opponent?

And why debate, anyway?

Want to make Texas’ sorry voter turnout look vigorous? Compare it with the number of people who watch political debates on television.

People watch highlight reels, when highlights exist, and otherwise lead their happy and productive lives while minimizing interruptions from ambitious carpers struggling for their attention. If anything newsworthy happens in the debate, they can find out later from professional or amateur or social media. Word will get out, if it needs to.

Those newsworthy events will probably be permanent, too, because nothing ever seems to die on the internet. That increased risk gives candidates new reasons to fear what might go wrong when the public is watching.

Here’s the thing about debates, forums and conversations and whatnot. If your concern is purely competitive — as it is for candidates and the people who work for them — these public appearances are full of opportunity and risk. Underdogs want more debates, so that voters might notice them or front-runners might stumble. Front-runners want fewer of them — for exactly the same reasons.

If your concern is more consumer-oriented — as it is for voters who want to make sure that they are putting the right people in office and that those people know what it is that the voters want — events like these offer a chance to compare and contrast the people seeking office. That one is smart. This one is a jerk. That other one is pretty weird, but charismatic.

Game-changing debates are relatively rare, but debates often produce moments that are important even when they don’t determine the outcome of races. Gov. Rick Perry’s famous “oops” moment during the last presidential primaries was not when his campaign actually came to pieces. His standing among the candidates had already dropped dramatically as voters became concerned about whether he was prepared for the job. “Oops” was mere punctuation, an accident that brought those concerns into sharp focus.

Skipping or limiting debates is both common and, for the candidate hitting the brakes, pretty safe. Perry never debated Bill White before the 2010 general election. George W. Bush only debated once when he was running for re-election in 1998 and did it on a Friday night during football season when the differences between he and Democrat Garry Mauro would draw the least amount of attention. Hardly anyone noticed.

But the Rose Garden strategy — named for keeping the incumbent president at home instead of on the road during an election where mistakes are feared — does not always work. Republican upstart Ted Cruz, running a long-shot campaign for U.S. Senate against Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst in 2012, accepted every invitation he could, whether it involved 100 people at a fish fry or a handful of people in a small-town civic club. And he beat the drum about it, to the point where Republican voters were asking openly why Dewhurst was ignoring them and ducking chances of appearing with Cruz. It was a year built on grass roots, and Dewhurst missed the signals.

Abbott, limiting debates, is keeping with a long line of candidates in Texas races who have decided the risks of public debates outweigh the rewards of voters’ attention to those events.

This year, when state Sen. Dan Patrick, R-Houston, decided to interrupt Dewhurst’s plans for re-election, he did what Cruz had done. This time, Dewhurst appeared at dozens of forums with Patrick and the other candidates in the primary. Voters decided to go with the new guy, illustrating the risk to an incumbent who shares the spotlight.

Patrick, who wanted voters to compare the candidates during the primaries, has apparently decided enough is enough. Now that he is the Republican nominee and the front-runner, his opponent, Democrat Leticia Van de Putte, is clamoring for more debates.

Patrick has agreed to one. That, his campaign says, is plenty.