In every election cycle, voters witness the spectacle of an underdog candidate challenging an incumbent elected official to participate in a series of debates. This is usually a starting bid, with the underdog hoping the incumbent will engage in at least one debate.
A debate is an opportunity for a challenger to share the same stage with an incumbent. For the incumbent, a debate can usually only have deleterious effects upon his/her respective candidacy. If the incumbent does not appear sharp and relevant, voters may start to question whether the incumbent has been in office too long. If the challenger impresses, donations could swarm into the challenger's campaign warchest. Of course, to effectuate a debate, a challenger with little name recognition who is trailing badly in the polls, must resort to creative tactics to force a debate.
In 1982, U.S. Senator Ted Kennedy (D-MA) was a leading candidate for the Presidential nomination in 1984. His senatorial re-election campaign was believed to be pro forma. Republican Senatorial nominee Ray Shamie, a businessman and political neophyte, succeeded in getting Kennedy to agree to a debate. He pointed out that in 1980, when Kennedy had run for the Democratic Presidential nomination, he had called on President Jimmy Carter to debate him. Ingeniously, the Shamie campaign exploited Kennedy's past demand. The Shamie campaign spent much of its time garnering free media attention by offering a cash reward to anyone who could persuade Kennedy to debate Shamie. The campaign hired an airplane to pull a banner that read: ''$10,000 Reward - Get Ted Kennedy to Debate Ray Shamie." The airplane flew around the country over large populations. Shamie's antics in trying to get Kennedy to debate became a national story, and finally Kennedy agreed to a debate with Shamie. The $10,000 reward went to the Cardinal Cushing School and Training Center for Special Needs Students located in Hanover, Massachusetts. While Kennedy easily won re-election, Shamie mustered a respectable 38.26% of the vote in heavily Democratic Massachusetts.
In 1990, U.S. Senator Rudy Boschwitz (R-MN) appeared to be a shoe-in for re-election. His campaign had raised a redoubtable $6 million and it appeared he would face only token opposition and coast to re-election. The Democratic nominee was Paul Wellstone, an obscure Political Science Professor at Carlton College in Northfield, Minnesota. Political consultant Bill Hillsman engineered a brilliant advertising campaign, wherein Wellstone tried to find Boschwitz by going to his campaign and state offices, asking staffers where Boschwitz was. When they told him he was not there, Wellstone asked the staffers to tell Boschwitz he would like to debate him. Wellstone also interviewed Minnesota residents, who told him how debates were healthy for the political process. Using the interviews, Wellstone developed an advertising campaign which garnered national attention, precipitously increasing Wellstone's name recognition and forcing Boschwitz to agree to multiple debates. That year, Wellstone scored one of the biggest upsets in the country, defeating the once near immutable Boschwitz. In fact, Wellstone was the only Democrat to defeat an incumbent Republican U.S. Senator that year.
In 1994, U.S. House Minority Whip Newt Gingrich (R-GA), in his quest to become the first Republican House Speaker in forty years, spent little time in his Congressional District. Instead, Gingrich barnstormed the nation, campaigning for Republican Congressional candidates in 125 other districts. Gingrich refused to debate his Democratic opponent, Ben Jones, a former U.S. Representative. Jones traveled to Gingrich's campaign stops around the country, trying to get to meet Gingrich and demand that he come back home to Georgia to debate. At one stop, Jones brought bloodhounds. However, Jones could not get close enough to Gingrich to confront him about participating in a debate. Jones lost the race by over 25 percentage points.
In 2012, U.S. Representative Paul Ryan (R-WI) concomitantly sought re-election to his House seat and election to the Vice Presidency as Republican Mitt Romney's runningmate. Ryan did not actively campaign for re-election or debate his Congressional opponent, Democrat Ron Zerban. Zerban tried to get political mileage by appearing in Danville, Kentucky the day a Vice Presidential debate between Ryan and Democrat Joe Biden was scheduled to be held. Though Zerban could not shame Ryan into debating him, his Danville appearances resulted in Zerban accruing lots of free local and national media attention and effectuated a cash infusion to Zerban's coffers. In fact, Zerban raised $2.1 million. Zerban held Ryan to just 54.9% of the vote, the lowest percentage of any of Ryan's eight Congressional races.
In 2014, Oklahoma City Mayor Mick Cornett, well ahead in the polls, did not debate his three opponents. While he was safely re-elected, supporters of his opponents had fun with Cornett's absence. At one debate, at the Fairview Missionary Baptist Church, a man seated in the front row sporting a chicken suit made local headlines by clucking: "Why won't Mick debate?"
During this election cycle, we will likely see more creative tactics employed by hapless challengers to force their incumbent opponents to debate. The incumbents will most likely agree to just one debate, try to say as little as possible, speak in platitudes and not even mention their opponents by name.
Of course, for a challenger to score a debate does not mean the debate will garner the requisite attention sought, and could in fact result in a debate with very few television viewers. Sometimes bad luck and bad timing can also play a role. For example, in 1986, popular Massachusetts Governor Michael Dukakis afforded his Republican challenger, George Kariotis, one debate. The debate was scheduled to be held on the day after the last game of the World Series between the Boston Red Sox and the New York Mets. However, the Seventh game was rained out and re-scheduled for the next day. Consequently, while about 1.5 million households in the Boston media market turned their television sets to the game, only about 46,000 viewers watched the debate. In good humor, Kariotis said in his concession speech, after pocketing just 31.2% of the vote: "In fairness to Mike, I should clear up something. He was criticized, I think, for giving me only one televised debate during the seventh game of the World Series [Between the Boston Red Sox and the New York Mets]. I should point out that that was really his second choice; his first choice was tomorrow." (The day after the election)
It is a harrowing task for underdog challengers to force an entrenched incumbent to debate. The incumbent has little to gain and much to lose. However, sometimes the challenger can muster media attention by using creative, imaginative, outside-the-box tactics. Even if the incumbent does not agree to debate, the free media attention for the challenger can enhance his/her name recognition and create a narrative of a feisty underdog challenger who creatively pursues the entrenched incumbent.