Experts say skipping debates is a trend, particularly among GOP candidates

It’s becoming more common for candidates to refuse to debate their political opponents, particularly among Republicans, according to local political scientists.

“This seems to have really taken off in 2022. It is mainly explained by Republicans refusing to debate — in many cases due to being inexperienced and wanting to only participate in debates on conservative platforms,” said Lee Hannah, associate professor of political science at Wright State University. “I think there’s a broader ‘the mainstream media doesn’t give us a fair shake’ argument from conservatives that has at least been enough to satisfy their supporters.”

But, said Hannah, there are a few cases involving Democrats refusing to debate, including Katie Hobbs, running for governor in Arizona against Republican Kari Lake.

“Overall, I think there is a general Republican tactic of creating media attention and avoiding news media scrutiny, including debates. However, some Democrats in other states are trying to avoid debates too,” said Daniel Birdsong, senior political science lecturer at the University of Dayton.

On Wednesday the Ohio Debate Commission announced that Ohio Republican candidates Gov. Mike DeWine, who is running for re-election, and Cincinnati businessman J.D. Vance, who is running for U.S. Senate, declined to participate in the nonpartisan commission’s debate for their races.

Former Dayton Mayor Nan Whaley, the Democrat running against DeWine, and U.S. Rep. Tim Ryan, D-Howland Twp., who is opposing Vance, both agreed to the debates, scheduled for Oct. 10 and 12 in Akron. The commission decided against having a debate with just the Democratic Party candidates on stage.

DeWine’s campaign said there will be other opportunities for voters to hear his positions at events that do not involve him on stage with Whaley. He and the other Republican primary candidates for governor also refused to participate in the commission’s primary debates in March.

Whaley and Ryan both debated their opponents at those events.

Vance’s campaign said he wasn’t participating due to the commission executive director’s previous history supporting Democrats, including a $250 contribution to a 2014 Ryan campaign. Jill Miller Zimon, the executive director, said she has not engaged in any partisan activities since she joined the commission at its start in late April 2018. The commission is a collaboration of media outlets, civic organizations and universities in Ohio.

In April the Republican National Committee voted to withdraw from the commission on national debates, and during primary season candidates in Georgia, North Carolina, Nevada and Nebraska skipped debates, said Mark Caleb Smith director of the Cedarville University Center for Political Studies.

“First, it is becoming something of a badge of honor for Republicans to run against the media, and the degree to which the debates involve media members, refusing to debate is another way to burnish their anti-media credentials,” Smith said. “Two, some candidates have nothing to gain from debates. They are well ahead, so they don’t feel the need to change the dynamics of the race. Debates can harm candidates as much or more than they can help them, so avoiding a debate is sometimes the safest thing to do.”

DeWine leads Whaley 53.8% to 39.2%, according to a recent poll by USA Today Network Ohio and the Suffolk University Political Research Center.

“A debate is one of the few events left where the candidate doesn’t have control, which is why I think they are very important and why I also understand why candidates in a strong position don’t want to open themselves up to that risk,” Hannah said. “Given DeWine’s long tenure in Ohio politics, I can see why he wants to ride his name recognition and incumbency advantages without opening himself up to uncertainty.”

He said a debate with Whaley would give her an opportunity to challenge him face-to-face.

“If they are in a strong position, why risk it?” Hannah said. “If they are running behind, they need to do something to change the race, and a debate is one of the few ways for a candidate to be knocked off balance and for the contours of a race to change.”

Ryan is slightly ahead of Vance, with 46.6% of voters supporting Ryan and 45.6% Vance, the poll found. They are running to replace retiring U.S. Sen. Rob Portman, R-Ohio.

“In open seat elections, like Ohio and Pennsylvania, there is a great incentive for both candidates to want at least one debate,” Birdsong said. “In Pennsylvania, (Republican) Mehmet Oz was pushing for debates with (Democrat) John Fetterman. Fetterman was avoiding debates, but recently agreed to one.”

Vance has more to gain from a debate than DeWine, said Birdsong.

“But Vance and other Trump Republicans prioritize friendly, conservative media over other news media,” Birdsong said. “His campaign must think it’s better for him to be on conservative cable news where he will get easy questions and get to attack Ryan without an honest rebuttal than to face questions from journalists with professional ethics.”

Vance’s campaign said he agreed to a debate hosted by Nexstar News’ WJW TV/Fox 8 in Cleveland on Oct. 4 and one sponsored by WLWT News 5 in Hamilton.

Ryan plans to be at the Hamilton debate, and one hosted by WFMJ-TV in Youngstown but did not agree to the Cleveland debate as it conflicted with the proposed date in Hamilton, said Jordan Fuja, press secretary for Ryan’s campaign.

Further information on all three debates was unavailable at press time.

The trend toward refusing to do debates marks changing campaign strategies, Smith said.

“Debates used to provide a golden opportunity to speak to independent and persuadable voters. The goal was to target swing voters to win,” Smith said. “Now, parties and candidates are focused primarily on increasing their own turnout and playing to their base of supporters. Debates are not necessarily the best way to do that.”

One thing is clear. Voters like getting a look at the candidates answering questions side-by-side on stage. Eighty-four percent of Ohio voters want to see debates between the candidates in both the governor’s race and the U.S. Senate race, the USA Today/Suffolk poll found.

“Citizens don’t have the time to follow candidates or to ask them questions. We need journalists to ask questions on our behalf,” Birdsong said. “On the debate stage the candidates must respond in real time to important questions. We can learn a lot about the candidates beyond their answers.”

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