Debates may sway race for governor

April 02, 2002|By Richard E. VatzRichard E. Vatz

"Let's have many, many debates ..."

-- Lt. Gov. Kathleen Kennedy Townsend

"We promise you real debates around the state on real issues, because the people deserve it."

-- Rep. Robert L. Ehrlich

LT. GOV. Kathleen Kennedy Townsend's eagerness to debate in the gubernatorial campaign surprised many political observers because the rap on her is that she is inarticulate and avoids give-and-take at every opportunity.

The conventional wisdom is that debates are a nuclear device in the armament of a political campaign, that they can make or break political candidates. Yes and no.

In a poll released March 26 by Mason-Dixon Polling and Research, 49 percent of the respondents said they would vote for Ms. Townsend and 36 percent said they would vote for Mr. Ehrlich. The poll was conducted March 20-22 and preceded Mr. Ehrlich's official entrance into the race. In the same survey, Ms. Townsend polled 48 percent to Mayor Martin O'Malley's 34 percent.

Polls in January taken by Potomac Inc. found Ms. Townsend beating Mr. Ehrlich by 15 points, a 12-point loss by Ms. Townsend over the last year, coupled with a substantial rise in her "unfavorable" rating -- three times that of Mr. Ehrlich.

Such "horserace" polls typically lack two things: a measurement of voter intensity, which would tell us how stable a poll may be, and a surefire method of determining whether the poll has precisely measured "likely voters" so as to be representative of those who will actually vote.

There have been many examples in Maryland and elsewhere of polls that turned out to be at significant variance with the elections they purported to predict. In 1987, polls were published that showed Kurt Schmoke 30 points ahead of Mayor Clarence Du Burns in their mayoral election, a contest that was quite close.

In the mayoral race of 1999, days before the Democratic primary, the polls indicated a virtual toss-up among candidates O'Malley, Lawrence A. Bell III and Carl Stokes. Mr. O'Malley won with 53 percent of the vote to Mr. Stokes' 28 percent and Mr. Bell's 17 percent. Democratic debates that year, with stability low, were quite consequential.

When candidates O'Malley and Republican David F. Tufaro debated in the general election, the Democrat's lead was so stable and high that no debate would have turned the election around.

So while poll results are not identical with public support, they are the best measure we have.

Political debates are consequential only when political races are reasonably close and voter preferences are unstable.

One of the best proofs of this point was the first presidential debate of 1984. In that debate, Ronald Reagan was inarticulate and almost incomprehensible, yet his terrible performance lost him nothing in voter support for his candidacy. Polls showed registered voters indicating that Democrat Walter Mondale had won the debate, but there was no commensurate change in Mr. Reagan's large lead as the preferred candidate.

To my knowledge, debates have never transformed an election in which a contender had a solid and stable lead. Debates are most significant when public opinion is fluid.

Given her statement supporting debates and the doubts attending her ability to defend her positions, there is no way that Ms. Townsend can or will avoid primary and/or general election debates.

Since the current contest is about as precarious as it could be, those debates will certainly be a major determinant in deciding who becomes our next governor. And if the gubernatorial candidates are Mr. O'Malley and Mr. Ehrlich, the same conclusion is evident.

Richard E. Vatz is a professor of communications at Towson University. He has been the featured commentator on presidential debates on CBS Radio since 1988.

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