The Short Sightedness of Avoiding Primary Debates

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Secretary of State Scott Gessler (credit: CBS)

Secretary of State Scott Gessler (credit: CBS)

Dominic Dezzutti By Dominic Dezzutti
CBSDenver.com Blogger
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Republican gubernatorial candidate Tom Tancredo made headlines a couple of months ago by announcing that he would not participate in any GOP primary debates, saying he only wanted to debate his would-be general election opponent, Governor John Hickenlooper.

On Tuesday, The Denver Post’s Lynn Bartels reported that Scott Gessler has taken the same position, refusing to debate the other four GOP candidates running for Governor, saying that it only adds fodder for Democrats in the general election. Gessler also pointed to the fact that since Tancredo is not participating in debates, the debates would be less relevant because voters couldn’t compare all of the candidates to each other.

The decision to not debate is not only short sighted by Gessler and Tancredo, but at least one of them is making a major gamble that is guaranteed to cost him the nomination.

While debates certainly can offer up fodder for negative ads, so do solo campaign stops, voting records and past policy announcements. My point is that just because a few debate transcripts will be missing, negative campaign ads will still find a way to be damning and effective. Avoiding debates to hold back negative campaign ads is taking away one bullet from a gun that has nine more in the magazine.

I realize my job makes me very biased in the following statement, but it doesn’t mean I am wrong. Debates matter to voters. If they didn’t, debates wouldn’t exist. Voters enjoy seeing and hearing candidates actually speak for themselves and see how they react to questions.

Some politicians have avoided debates and still won elections. However, many of those were not only front runners during the primary season, but also in the general election. That is a key distinction that neither Gessler nor Tancredo will enjoy this fall.

Tancredo and Gessler are in a much different boat and they need to be careful that the decision to not debate doesn’t blow up in their faces like a badly crafted Wile E. Coyote plan to catch the Roadrunner.  

First of all, at least one of them is guaranteed to lose the nomination. At least one of them will look back and wonder if they could not have made clear and effective points in a debate that would have won more votes in the end. Inevitably, at least one of them will look back and wonder if appearing at just a few more events could have taken some votes away from the other guys running and made a difference.

Debates are not just opportunities to zing your opponents. Debates are also absolutely free air time and free opportunities to reach an audience that is hyper-interested and extremely likely to vote in the primary. Since primaries traditionally see low turnout, getting in front of every assured voter can make a huge difference.

Without taking the opportunity to utilize free air time or free events, candidates who duck debates are forced to rely on their own funds to get the word out. That is money that could have been spent in the general election. Both Gessler and Tancredo will spend more money to win the primary than they would have if they debated.

Debates are also an opportunity to defeat your less funded opponents. With a crowded primary, taking out opponents and bringing potential funders to your side is a valuable strategy.

Finally, Gessler and Tancredo should hope that the same theory is not thrust upon them in the general election. Governor Hickenlooper will be the front runner and may or may not be anxious to debate.

It will be very ironic to see Tancredo or Gessler announcing that they want to debate Hickenlooper more often, but be frustrated at how few debates the Governor may agree to.  Will those criticisms fall flat when said by candidate that saw no value in debating just a few months prior? How hollow will complaints from Tancredo or Gessler sound when compared to their own refusals to debate?

Once a candidate decides that voters do not deserve to hear them speak at debates, it’s very hard not to sound like a hypocrite when demanding debate opportunities with your general election opponent.

Maybe Gessler or Tancredo will be successful in their run for Governor and look back at this blog entry, laughing at my foolishness.

Or maybe, just maybe, they may regret this decision and look back at all of the opportunity lost.

Dominic Dezzutti’s Latest Blog Entries

About The Blogger

- Dominic Dezzutti, producer of the Colorado Decides debate series, a co-production of CBS4 and Colorado Public Television, looks at the local and national political scene in his CBSDenver.com blog. Read new entries here usually every Monday, Wednesday and Friday. Dezzutti writes about federal, state and local matters and how our elected leaders are handling the issues important to Colorado. Dezzutti is also the host and producer of the Emmy award winning Colorado Inside Out on Colorado Public Television.

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