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Give Public Its Money’s Worth With Debates

The following appeared as an Op-Ed in the August 30, 2009 Asbury Park Press.

In New Jersey, if you’re going to take taxpayer dollars to fund your campaign, you must be willing to face both the public and your opponents in a mediated debate. In July, it was decided that two gubernatorial candidate debates would be held on October 1 and 16, with the lieutenant governor debate on October 8.

If you don’t take public funding, though, you don’t have to participate in the debates. That means Republican Chris Christie and independent Chris Daggett are in, but Democrat Jon Corzine, who opted out of public financing, can do what he wants. In mid-August, Corzine said he would “be involved” in the debates. So far, so good.

Now, it appears that Corzine may only be involved if all the debates are held in late October. NJN, the October 1 debate sponsor, has petitioned the New Jersey Election Law Enforcement Commission (ELEC) to move its debate to October 22 to accommodate Governor Corzine’s schedule. This would also push the lieutenant governor debate to October 19, 20, or 21, since it has to be held between the two gubernatorial events (full disclosure: Monmouth University is the host site for the L.G. debate).

So what if ELEC doesn’t change the schedule and Corzine opts out of the first debate? On some level, an empty chair could provide voters useful information about the candidate. But I really don’t see that happening. The moral pressure to participate will be strong. If the schedule stays as is, my gut says Governor Corzine will be joining Chris Christie and Chris Daggett in NJN’s studios on October 1.

However, I can understand NJN’s preference to guarantee the incumbent’s participation. Even though Corzine is not required to participate, he will likely be one of the top two vote-getters on November 3rd. I’m sure that is something ELEC will consider. However, there are other equally important considerations that ELEC should weigh before making a decision to change the schedule.

When the public agrees to finance a gubernatorial candidate’s campaign, the expectation is that the public will also get a chance to learn about the candidate’s issue positions. The campaigns can spend their public funding on advertising that says very little about where they stand on issues that most concern the voters. The purpose of the required debates is to provide a forum where candidates cannot escape tough questions about the issues.

For example, 45% of New Jersey voters tell us property taxes is among the top issues they want to hear the candidates talk about. To date, none of the candidates has run an ad saying what he would do about this widespread concern. But you can bet they will have to address this issue in the debates.

So what’s the problem with holding the debates later in October rather than earlier? Late debates do little to help voters come to a decision. By the time we get to the final weeks of a campaign, the airwaves are crowded with paid advertising that does little to inform voters about the candidates’ issue positions.

This problem is compounded by the fact that New Jersey elections typically get little quality coverage from the New York and Philadelphia broadcast media. Garden State voters are more likely to know who’s running for mayor of New York City than governor of their own state. To illustrate this bluntly, New Jersey taxpayers are currently funding the campaign of one candidate, Chris Daggett, who is basically unknown to 86% of voters. Even Chris Christie, who also received public funding for his primary run, is still a blank slate for one-third of the state’s electorate.

Voters need time to get to know the candidates and digest what they have to say. The benefit of an earlier debate schedule is to introduce these candidates to the public just as voters are starting to pay attention to the race.

The bottom line is that the public pays for these campaigns. It’s not unreasonable to expect that the public will be able to hear from these candidates while there is still time to form an opinion.