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Oh, SmAlbany!

Daily posts and occasional longer essays about politics, culture, and life in the Capital Region...updated M-F, midmorning

"I write this not as a booster of Albany, which I am, nor an apologist for the city, which I sometimes am, but rather as a person whose imagination has become fused with a single place, and in that place finds all the elements that a man ever needs..." -W. Kennedy, from O Albany!

Why Jennings won't debate...

Why Jennings won't debate: Everyone and their left wing brother is up in arms that Mayor Jennings is refusing to debate his opponents - Alice Green and Joe Sullivan- before the general election November 8th. Even the TU cartoonist got in the act over the weekend, illustrating Sullivan and Green debating on TV while Jennings sits home and laughs. All this means is that it's a good time for Oh, SmAlbany! to return to Political Science 101. Why exactly is the mayor refusing to debate?

Ultimately, it has a lot more to do with his position and resources in the election than anything about him personally. Although his opponents would have you believe the mayor is "scared" to debate the issues or "doesn't believe in the democratic process," this is hardly the case. Debates are certainly nice forums for citizens to learn about candidates and issues, but they are also key political moments for campaigns. If a debate is more helpful than hurtful for your campaign, you want it. If it isn't, you don't. Very simple, very machiavelian. Five points:

Point #1 - Frontrunners hate debates / chasers love debates - If you watched The West Wing last night, this was abundently clear. Congressman Santos, trailing by 9 points in the polls, was begging for a debate, but his political handlers knew that Senator Vinnick had no interest in debating, since he was already ahead. As Vinnick's handler says, "They need to debate 10 times more than we do." The bottom line is that if you are ahead in a campaign, you want to minimize "big moments," where you can either squander your lead with a dumb mistake or your opponent can gain ground with a brilliant manuever. Debates are inherently "big moments." Therefore, people in the lead hate them and people who are behind beg for them. Jennings is in the lead. His opponents are far behind.

Point #2 - Well-funded campaigns hate debates / poor campaings love debates - Debates are the best advertising at the cheapest cost - you get the full attention of interested voters at absolutely no cost, and you get to say whatever you want. This means your message will be up to date. Jennings has plenty of money and can run all the paid ads he wants. His opponents are cash-poor and would love some free airtime. Therefore, Jennings doesn't want to debate and his opponents do.

Point #3 - Mainstream candidates hate debates / marginal candidates love debates - a debate has a strange leveling power in the minds of low-information voters. If a low-information voter sees three candidates in a debate, he/she accepts that these are the "legitimate" candidates in the election. This is why the major parties try so hard to keep third party candidates - like Perot in '92 and Nader in '00 - out of the debates. It denies them the legitimacy that comes with being a "big boy" in the debate. If you can't keep your marginal opponents out of the debate, you simply try not to debate them. Like it or not, Alice Green and Joe Sullivan are marginal candidates. Thus, Jennings doesn't want to debate them.

Point #4 - Incumbents hate debates / Challengers love debates - When there is an incumbent running for office, debates generally center around his/her policies. Since challengers are not managing policy themselves, they often have little record to critique. This usually means that debates end up being asymetric affairs, with challengers able to attack the incumbents record and the incumbent left to either defend his record or attack the challengers experience. Except in the best of situations, this works to the advantage of the challenger. Challengers also tend to be less "legitimate" than incumbents, and thus gain ground under point #3. Thus, Jennings doesn't want to debate and his opponents do.

Point #5 - Not debating can hurt you, but only in high visibility, close campaings - Ducking debates against serious opponents, for instance if you were running for president of the United States, would seriously hurt your polling numbers. But voters tend to not be well aware of the day-to-day news of mayoral campaigns, so they don't usually punish debate duckers. Ducking a debate against a marginal candidate is often less problematic than against a serious candidate in a close race, because voters expect debates in close races. Thus, Jennings doesn't mind missing the debate.

As you can see, Jennings has no reason to debate. His opponents have every reason to demand one. They will, and he won't. Case closed. Jennings is a hack, but right now he's just being a smart politician. His opponents will try to goad him into a debate using every rhetorical device in the book, but they know he won't fall for it. They need the debate, he doesn't.

Debates are wonderful traditions in democratic communities. They inform voters, allowing for the airing of issues, and let voters see politicians interact with each other. But for campaigns, they are either vital chances to gain ground or briar patches to be avoided at all costs. And they are treated as such by the candidates, through pure political calculations about the benefits and drawbacks that attending the debate has for their chances in the race. No more, no less. It has nothing to do with anything personal about the candidates. Joe Sullivan and Alice Green would be stonewalling just the same if they were in Jennings position. They might come up with better excuses - Jennings is laughably claiming he's "too busy" - but they would decline just the same. But that's the sad reality of debates. To understand them through the lens of the democratic ideal is just that - idealist. Enough already.

P.S. - It can be the case that everyone wants a debate. This happens often in wide-open races when no one is really sure what is going to happen, like the Soares/Clyne/Cusick race for county DA last fall (the general election, not the primary). Soares was the frontrunner, but needed the debate to silence his doubters. Clyne and Cusick both needed to make up ground. It can't produce a positive-sum result, but it can be percieved as a positive opportunity by everyone heading into the event.

P.P.S - I wish I could put the TU cartoon up, but it's not available on the website! I guess I'll just have to buy the print edition demand they put the whole paper online.
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At 3:16 AM , Anonymous Anonymous said:

Soares was the leader at the time of the debate? Are you referring to the debate prior to the primary? Bit of revisionist history there? They typically don't call it a "stunning defeat" of the incumbent if the challenger was the leader before the vote.


At 6:29 AM , Blogger Matt said:

You are right that Soares won a "stunning" victory in the primary. I was referring to the general election.

I was referring to the three-way debate between Clyne, Soares, and Cusick in October 2004. Obviously, if a republican was in the debate, then it was the general electon debate.

Here's a poll,


taken on October 11-13, 2004, showing Soares as the clear favorite in the three-way race.    

At 7:03 AM , Anonymous Anonymous said:

One clarification: You can't lump Jennings' "opponents" together. Joe Sullivan hasn't demanded a debate. He's on record as saying a debate is a pointless excuse for posturing and grandstanding.    

At 8:42 AM , Blogger Matt said:

Good point! I didn't mean to imply that. It is definitely the Green campaign that is calling for the debate, not the Sullivan campaign.    

At 8:55 AM , Blogger adirondack said:

Yeah... Heaven forbid we get to hear the candidates actually discuss the issues facing the city. I say... to hell with debate! In fact, what the hell is the point of having a Democracy at all... dissolve the NY State Senate and Assembly! Debate is a waste of time and money! Let one man rule! No discussion! Freakin' liberals, always with your wacky marginal ideas! Debate! What's next from you people? Fair voting? Freedom of speech? These liberals with their democratic ideas should just go to Stockholm... where there is better health care, better education, lower crime rates, and more participation in government! Love it or leave it!    

At 9:32 AM , Blogger Matt said:

Um, you must have misread my post. This has nothing to do with liberal or conservative. Any candidate, regarless of ideology, tends to follow the guidelines above, because they make logical sense for someone trying to win the campaign. When radicals (left or right)have the incumbency, money, front-running status, and legitimacy, they don't debate either. Think Barney Frank or Tom Delay. It's just ture.

It's not a partisan idea or a radical concept. But then again I'm a realist and a centrist. It might not be that easy to see if you are a radical dreamer of the left or the right.    

At 10:52 AM , Anonymous Anonymous said:

howdy (DIA here)

Help me out here. As someone above pointed out Clyne debated Soares prior to the primary. He was the leader at the time (thus all the stunning upset headlines when he lost). Why did Clyne bother to debate?

And if you check the post you link to on my site I don't call for the mayor to debate. I call him pathetic and a liar for saying he's too busy to debate. Do you really believe he's too busy? I just want the mayor and his supporters to be honest. I realize Republicans and right wingers don't care for that much these days, but its a left wing value.    

At 12:01 PM , Blogger Matt said:

Like I say above, people debate when it is in their interest, and they don't debate when it is not. I think Clyne debated during the 2004 primary because he was (rightly) scared that he might not win. Or he was worried that not debating would be seriously problematic for his campaign (again, rightly so i think). So he debated. Is that a ground-breaking revelation?

DIA - I know that your post I link to says the mayor is just an idiot for his excuse. I agree (check my post). But let's be fair - it's not like you haven't called for a debate:


you call the mayor "chicken" because "he knows he'll lose" if he debates. As I point out in my post, this is nonsense. The mayor might win or might lose a debate on the issues. But that has nothing to do with why he isn't debating. You can admit that, right?

RE: left wingers being more amenable to the truth, I find it plainly silly when people argue that their ideology is more "truthful." Sure, lots of right wingers make up things, lie in office, and have supporters who blindly follow them anyway. But the same thing could be said of any ideology. It doesn't take a historian to figure that out. Anyone who picks up a nespaper knows that.    

At 12:11 PM , Anonymous Anonymous said:

I had said I'd like the mayor to debate. Precisely because i think he will lose. I've also said several times that I know this is why he won't debate. We may not agree on the reasons but we do agree there is no upside to him debating.

Perhaps you are right about the clyne soares debate. however, if you attended it I'm sure you recall that Clyne put on one of the most arrogant performances ever seen in a debate. Certainly didn't seem like he thought the vote was going to be close. He even scolded someone in the crowd for yelling out support of Soares. It was quite entertaining to watch.

Perhaps you could refer to me as something other than the "left wing brother" if you don't want me to take pot shots at right wingers. One good turn deserves another.

Of course democrats lie just as much as republicans. We live in Albany, don't we?    

At 12:32 PM , Blogger Matt said:

Fair enough. Good points.

I didn't think you took offense to the "left wing" moniker - isn't it written on the top left corner of your site? I didn't mean to offend.

And yes, we live in Albany. God knows it's strange times when I find myself defending the TanMan.

I too would love to see a debate. From a citizen/theoretical point of view, they are almost perfect expressions of democracy. I'd love even more to be the one asking the questions.

Still planning on retiring after the election?    

At 4:24 PM , Anonymous Anonymous said:

dia again (forgot my blogger password)

I was planning on retirement but I seemed to have underestimated the demand part of the supply vs. demand equation for my product. I've gotten quite a bit of encouragement to continue. We'll see what happens after some time off.    

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