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What’s the Big Deal With Debates?

By CAROLINE BECK, Alabama Daily News

Since most of this week’s political talk has been consumed about the possibility of debates between Governor Kay Ivey and Democratic nominee Walt Maddox, let’s take a closer look at the history of governor’s race debates and how debating or not debating has affected the outcome.

Now just to begin, governor races that have debates either during the primary races or leading up to the general election are never as popular or as widely watched as the presidential debates, but for some reason, they are a recurring tactic used against Ivey this political season.

Bentley vs. Sparks

Ivey’s predecessor, Robert Bentley, participated in several debates during the close GOP primary race in which he eked out a runoff win. Bentley also debated his Democratic challenger Ron Sparks in the 2010 general election.

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However, when running for reelection in 2014, Bentley refused to debate Democratic candidate Parker Griffith. Griffith then went on his “ducking” campaign in which he placed a giant blow-up duck in front of the capitol building to make his point of calling Bentley a coward for not debating him before the general election.

While Bentley was widely criticized in the media for avoiding debates, the strategy was effective as he won with 63 percent of the vote.

Riley vs. Baxley, Siegelman 

Former Gov. Bob Riley debated each of his Democratic opponents, first as a challenger and then as the incumbent.

His solid performance against then-Gov. Don Siegelman in 2002 could have been a decisive factor in Riley winning that very close general election. At one point during this 2002 debate, Riley pounded Siegelman for repeating a “lie” over and over again. In a Reagan-esque moment, Riley gives Siegelman a sly smile and says, “here we go again” before saying “look at me when I’m talking to you, Governor.”

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Riley easily outmatched Lt. Gov Lucy Baxley, his Democratic challenger in 2006, when the two debated. Riley showed his ability to coolly speak through his points with ease again while Baxley appeared to struggle to keep up sometimes. Riley would go on to win that year as well.

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Siegelman vs. James

Facing a difficult reelection challenge in 1998, former Gov. Fob James had no choice but to debate then Lt. Gov. Don Siegleman. The mid 90s saw its share of education funding woes, and Siegleman swooped proposed fixing the state’s woes with an lottery to fund schools and college scholarships.

That issue dominated much of their televised debate (the audio is not great, so headphones may be required. A better video is available on CSPAN HERE).

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Siegleman would go on to defeat James, but his education lottery plan would fail a vote of the people a year later.

To debate or not debate

Ivey’s circumstances are closer to that of Bentley in 2014. With her high approval ratings, including a recent poll released by Morning Consult showing Ivey to be the third most popular governor in the nation, the governor has has little to gain and much to lose by participating in a debate.

However, Maddox is certain to continue his criticism and will probably garner a lot of attention in the media. The question will be can he generate enough chatter to pressure Ivey into believing the risks of not debating are greater than the risks of debating.

After all, the candidates who usually succeed or appear to have “won” debates are the candidates who are quick and confident in their speaking abilities and who are willing to throw the punches at their opponent while literally standing right in front of them.

Maybe Ivey would be all those things during her debate with Maddox, I wouldn’t know because Ivey has yet to participate in any televised debate, but why risk it if she isn’t legally required too.

Then, there is the argument of if debates even work. Do they actually hold sway over voters and change their minds in the end?

Ivey’s plan of self-protection leading up to the general election makes sense, especially when she is pulling such good numbers right now. But one can also look at Maddox’s perspective, that if all that is keeping Ivey from losing this race is an hour-long debate with Maddox, then maybe the voters do deserve to see how she would perform.

One thing is for sure, debates have the ability to make great television for a couple nights out of the year, especially if they end up as SNL sketches.

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