Debating usually won’t help incumbents, experts say

Debate season kicked off this week for the U.S. Senate candidates, but candidates for other federal offices this year are shying away from publicly sparring with their opponents.

The candidates for U.S. Senate—Democrat incumbent Joe Donnelly, Republican Mike Braun and Libertarian Lucy Brenton—met Monday for the first of two live debates. The second will be Oct. 30.

But only two of Indiana’s nine congressional districts have candidates who have agreed to debate this year. Candidates in the 2nd District—Republican incumbent Jackie Walorski and Democrat Mel Hall debated each other on Monday and will meet again later this month. In the 3rd District, Republican incumbent Jim Banks and Democrat Courtney Tritch will debate Nov. 2.

That’s not for a lack of interest at least for some parties though. Democrat Liz Watson, who is challenging Republican incumbent Trey Hollingsworth in the 9th District, has been calling for a debate for months.

Democrat Tobi Beck, who is running in the open 4th District against Republican Jim Baird, has also sent a letter to her opponent requesting a debate “in any public location with an independent moderator.”

In Evansville, WNIN and the Evansville Courier & Press offered three dates for debates between Republican incumbent Larry Bucshon and Democrat William Tanoos, but Buschon declined to participate. A spokesman for Bucshon told the Courier & Press that “voters in the 8th District are familiar with Dr. Bucshon’s strong record of accomplishments on their behalf and where he stands on the issues.”

So, what would make a candidate choose not to debate?

Chad Kinsella, assistant professor of political science at Ball State University, said the unwritten rule in politics is if you’re ahead significantly in a race, “there is no need to debate.”

“There’s nothing to gain from it,” Kinsella said.

By agreeing to a debate, a candidate who is ahead would be giving free media coverage to their opponent and would put themselves in a situation where it’s easy to make a mistake and lose support.

On the other hand, if you’re the candidate who is down in the race, it’s in your best interest to debate to potentially attract more supporters.

Andy Downs, director of the Mike Downs Center for Indiana Politics at Purdue University Fort Wayne, said it’s often challengers who have more to gain from a debate than an incumbent.

“If you’re the incumbent, you’re giving your opponent a venue,” Downs said. “You’re putting them on equal footing with yourself.”

Kinsella said it’s possible some voters are turned off by a candidate’s unwillingness to debate, but it’s likely not enough to change the outcome of a race. Downs said he generally recommends most incumbents agree to at least one debate, so then “they can’t say you didn’t debate.”

If it’s a close race, then it’s typically in the best interest of all candidates to debate and try to distinguish themselves, but even that comes with a risk.

“That all hinges on the person’s ability to be a good debater, and not everyone is,” Downs said.

So, what’s the key to being a good debater?

“Answer the question you want to answer, not the question that was asked,” Downs said.

For the races where a debate hasn’t been scheduled yet, it’s possible, but not likely one pops up before Nov. 6. “Time is really running out,” Kinsella said. “Most likely, they’ve already set their strategy in either debating or not debating.”

Downs is more open-minded about the possibility though.

“I can think of an election where debates came together with as few as two weeks to go,” Downs said. “Something could happen.”

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