Dems’ aversion to debates becoming campaign issue

Front-runners uninterested in giving opponents any oxygen

THE NOVEMBER ELECTION in Massachusetts is having a meta moment: Emerging as a major issue in the campaign is the reluctance of some candidates to engage with their opponents over the major issues in the campaign.

Debates, which have long been practically a given in major races, are suddenly anything but a sure thing this year.

In the race for governor, Democratic nominee Maura Healey has agreed to one debate with Republican Geoff Diehl, but is fuzzy on whether she’ll agree to further encounters. State Sen. Diana DiZoglio, the Democratic nominee for state auditor, said she’ll debate her Republican opponent, Anthony Amore – but only as long as three minor-party candidates who will also appear on the ballot are included.

The attorney general’s race is where the debating divide is most stark. Republican Jay McMahon said recently he’d like to have seven debates with Democratic nominee Andrea Campbell, one each week leading up to the November 8 election. While that seems excessive, maybe he’s hoping they’ll compromise on a number somewhere in the middle, since Campbell so far has agreed to zero face-offs.

“We’ll see” has become her stock reply to the question of whether she’ll debate McMahon, an answer that doesn’t draw headlines by shutting the door to the idea, but looks a lot like an effort to run down the clock on the question.

The secretary of state’s race, where seven-term incumbent Democrat Bill Galvin faces Republican Rayla Campbell, who, to put it mildly, has advanced some unorthodox ideas, is one where voters may not miss out on a substantive exchange of views if debates don’t happen.

“First and foremost, front-runners aren’t really interested in debates,” said Tatishe Nteta, political science professor at the University of Massachusetts Amherst and director of the UMass Poll. But “it’s really not a positive for our democracy when you don’t have these kinds of debates.”

Nteta said there seems to be a decline nationally in debates, something he attributes to heightened political polarization. “I think the decreasing number of debates, the decreasing saliency of debates is a function of the increased partisan polarization and strife we see,” he said. “People are just relying on their partisan identity rather than seeing if a candidate connects with them and seeing what issues they are campaigning on.”

In blue-state Massachusetts, Democrats’ sudden aversion to debates has GBH’s Jim Braude seeing red.

Braude called out the candidates who are skirting debates on Monday’s episode of “Greater Boston,” sarcastically showing scenes from debates he and Margery Eagan moderated four years ago and describing them as strange phenomena that voters today might not recognize.

The auditor’s race, which many think may be Republicans’ only chance, with Amore the one GOP statewide candidate endorsed by outgoing Gov. Charlie Baker, has a strange debate twist to it. Despite its low-profile place among statewide offices, five candidates have made the ballot for auditor in the November election – Amore and DiZoglio, as well as candidates from the Green-Rainbow, Libertarian, and Workers parties. DiZoglio has told GBH and other outlets that she’ll agree to debates – as long as all five candidates are included.

“Trust me, this isn’t about fairness to all,” Braude said on Monday night. “It’s about ensuring her Republican opponent, Anthony Amore, has as little air time to make his case as possible.”

Nteta said debates often don’t sway many voters, often serving more to “reinforce their preferences.” The big exception, he said, is when a candidate commits a major gaffe, which helps explain front-runners’ aversion to debating.

Meet the Author

Michael Jonas

Executive Editor, CommonWealth

About Michael Jonas

Michael Jonas has worked in journalism in Massachusetts since the early 1980s. Before joining the CommonWealth staff in early 2001, he was a contributing writer for the magazine for two years. His cover story in CommonWealth's Fall 1999 issue on Boston youth outreach workers was selected for a PASS (Prevention for a Safer Society) Award from the National Council on Crime and Delinquency.

Michael got his start in journalism at the Dorchester Community News, a community newspaper serving Boston's largest neighborhood, where he covered a range of urban issues. Since the late 1980s, he has been a regular contributor to the Boston Globe. For 15 years he wrote a weekly column on local politics for the Boston Sunday Globe's City Weekly section.

Michael has also worked in broadcast journalism. In 1989, he was a co-producer for "The AIDS Quarterly," a national PBS series produced by WGBH-TV in Boston, and in the early 1990s, he worked as a producer for "Our Times," a weekly magazine program on WHDH-TV (Ch. 7) in Boston.

Michael lives in Dorchester with his wife and their two daughters.

About Michael Jonas

Michael Jonas has worked in journalism in Massachusetts since the early 1980s. Before joining the CommonWealth staff in early 2001, he was a contributing writer for the magazine for two years. His cover story in CommonWealth's Fall 1999 issue on Boston youth outreach workers was selected for a PASS (Prevention for a Safer Society) Award from the National Council on Crime and Delinquency.

Michael got his start in journalism at the Dorchester Community News, a community newspaper serving Boston's largest neighborhood, where he covered a range of urban issues. Since the late 1980s, he has been a regular contributor to the Boston Globe. For 15 years he wrote a weekly column on local politics for the Boston Sunday Globe's City Weekly section.

Michael has also worked in broadcast journalism. In 1989, he was a co-producer for "The AIDS Quarterly," a national PBS series produced by WGBH-TV in Boston, and in the early 1990s, he worked as a producer for "Our Times," a weekly magazine program on WHDH-TV (Ch. 7) in Boston.

Michael lives in Dorchester with his wife and their two daughters.

All of that said, UMass Boston political science professor Erin O’Brien sees it as a bad sign for democracy that we’re debating whether to have debates.

“Even when debates fall short, it’s still way better than not having them,” she said. “We should have debates. That should not be controversial.”