I listened over my gnashing of salami and provolone to Lori Walsh, Seth Tupper, and Jon Hunter talk about the significance of Billie Sutton’s eagerness for and Kristi Noem’s duckiness from debates. They didn’t mention Libertarian candidate Kurt Evans, and then Jon Hunter said he thinks both candidates are thoughtful—
—Click! I don’t want baloney on my sandwich or my radio. I turn to the keyboard.
An oft-peddled fallacy in discussions of candidate debates is that it makes sense for the frontrunner to avoid debates. The commentariat assumes Republican Noem has the advantage in South Dakota and thus shrugs at her debate dodge: “Why should she take the chance?”
Check that thinking: what chance does the frontrunner take by debating her opponents? Is she not the frontrunner for a reason? Is she not the superior candidate? Would not a direct confrontation convince even more voters of the frontrunner’s merits?
I’m running for office. Conventional wisdom says I—Democrat, liberal, straight-talker, non-incumbent, less well-funded—suggests I’m not the frontrunner in my District 3 contest. I will appear at any debate or public forum that I can fit into my schedule, one-on-one with my tired, grouchy, incumbent opponent, because I firmly believe that any honest audience seeing the two of us, side by side, answering the same policy questions, engaging voters with their public concerns, will see that I am the better-informed, better spoken, more honest, more inclusive, less partisan and more public-minded candidate. My self-assessment of my skills does not vary with my poll numbers: whether I’m the underdog (which I’d always rather be) or the favorite, I must be confident that I offer the voters better policies and skills than my opponent.
At the bottom of any candidate’s resistance to debating is the belief that she would lose. A debate dodging frontrunner believes that her lead is based not on merit but on luck or image or some other magic that she must not squander because she cannot enhance it with her own debate skills.
Even if we accept the idea that even the best debaters have off days, that the strongest candidates can trip on certain questions or muff one key line that makes headlines, honest candidates would conclude that’s all the more reason to have more debates, not fewer. Agree to only two debates, and blowing one leaves you looking at least half-bad. Agree to ten debates, and if you really are a superior candidate, you’ll outshine your opponent seven, eight, or nine times out of ten. That’s the same reason the World Series is seven games.
Truly excellent candidates aren’t afraid to debate. Truly excellent candidates will rise to the occasion and win debates and voters in their public appearances. Truly excellent, confident candidates (and we want confidence in our leaders, right?) relish the opportunity to stand shoulder-to-shoulder with their opponents to demonstrate their superior qualifications for the job.
Kristi Noem probably hasn’t thought about that, Jon. She takes her advisors’ convention advice and ducks debates. But at the heart of her debate ducking, Kristi is saying, “Every time I stand next to Billie Sutton, I risk reminding people that’s he’s really the better candidate.”