From The Baltimore Sun: O’Malley-Ehrlich Debate: Busting the Myths

By Richard E. Vatz

Monday will be the first — and perhaps the only — debate between Democratic Gov. Martin O’Malley and former Republican Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. for the Maryland governor’s race in 2010. The hour-long debate will be moderated by WJZ’s Denise Koch. The format has been stated (incompletely) by the station and The Sun as including opening and closing remarks and discussing five to seven issues, and that questions will be solicited from viewers. We don’t know exactly what the moderator’s role is, or the rules for who may speak and when.

There might be only one such debate, although earlier in the year both sides were talking of several.

Here are some corrections to some common myths and misperceptions, as well as recommendations, concerning debates, with specific reference to the O’Malley-Ehrlich contest:

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Myth #1: Multiple, lengthy debates best serve the electorate

I know of no series of debates — statewide or national — wherein the third, fourth and/or fifth debate did not result in diminishing attention by the audience, accompanied by etherizing boredom. Sometimes a second debate is necessary for one participant when an unexpected event occurs in the first — say, Ronald Reagan’s comeback in the second presidential debate in 1984 after he demonstrated utter confusion and disorganization in the first.

The length of the O’Malley-Ehrlich debate — one hour — is about right. If it is done well, that is all the time necessary for a candidate to articulate why he or she is the better choice. Otherwise, fatigue becomes a factor and pundits will focus disproportionately on gaffes, which are irrelevant to debates and almost never decisive between well-known candidates.

Myth #2: Debates between well-known candidates are often game-changers

This is rarely the case. The closer to an election that a debate occurs, the more stable the electorate’s support. Debates in the month before elections — as opposed to, say, primary or other earlier debates — can change election outcomes only when the candidates are neck-and-neck. This may have been the case with the 1980 Reagan-Carter race, and even possibly with the 2008 Obama-McCain race. In 1996, no debate would have changed the Clinton-Dole outcome. I daresay the debates in 2006 could not have changed the outcome of the Ehrlich-O’Malley governor’s race.

In this race, there are significant differences in poll results. Some polls show a very close race, and if that’s correct, the debates could be all-important.

Myth #3: Moderators should be passive and not press the debaters for responsive answers

If the debate allows interaction between the principals, uninvolved moderators have their place. If, however, no or few such exchanges are permitted, only insistent follow-up questions can force candidates to answer questions about inconsistencies and false claims. Does Governor Ehrlich have a clear basis for insisting that fees are different from taxes? Does Governor O’Malley have a good reason for having claimed he would roll back the 72 percent BGE rate increase when he could not do so? Why did the O’Malley administration remove a negative review of the state’s economy from its website? Is not Governor O’Malley’s friendship with President Barack Obama critical to Maryland’s fiscal health?

If there is no O’Malley-Ehrlich clash and no insistence by the moderator that they address issues on which they differ, they will simply talk past each other, and you will have speeches in the same room but not debate.

Myth #4: Fair postdebate media evaluation is unnecessary

Fair journalistic evaluators of the debate should weigh in; otherwise, the debate over the debate by the punditry supersedes the debate itself. How many partisans can reach how many outlets after the debate — and how quickly — to insist that their candidate won? That persuasive effort is fine and expected, but there should be some unbiased evaluation provided by TV, newspapers and other media.

With just one or possibly two debates, let’s maximize these opportunities to find out which candidate would truly make the better state executive leader. Debates can do this best when they are conducted properly.

Richard Vatz teaches political persuasion at Towson University.

Copyright © 2010, The Baltimore Sun

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