The decision by the Wisconsin Broadcasters Association to drop plans for debates featuring candidates in the hotly contested primaries among Democrats running for governor and Republicans running for the U.S. Senate is deeply disappointing.
The WBA tried to do the right thing. It messed up. Then, instead of setting things right, the WBA walked away from the process.
That was the wrong response to honest criticism and the WBA should reconsider it — the group still has a chance to play a valuable role in the primary process.
The thing to remember here is that the WBA started appropriately, with an announcement that because of “the high level of interest in this year’s elections,” it would organize hour-long debates and make them available to radio and television stations statewide.
There is a high level of interest in the primaries. And it is that level of interest that led to a pushback against the WBA’s decision to allow only four of the 10 Democratic gubernatorial contenders to debate.
It is certainly true that the Democratic competition can be seen as unwieldy. But it can also be seen as a freewheeling competition that is providing Wisconsinites with a wide range of compelling options. As of now, voters are still being pulled in many directions. That was evident in the results from a recent straw poll at the state Democratic Party convention. Former state Rep. Kelda Roys was the clear first-place finisher. But she got just 23 percent of the vote, while seven other candidates were within striking distance of second place.
What this tells us is that this contest remains wide open. So the WBA’s plan to invite only four candidates to debate on July 27 — based on the transitory results from a July Marquette University Law School poll — was wrongheaded on a variety of practical fronts. As Charles Franklin, the director of the Marquette survey, noted: Polls have margins of error. With so many Democratic gubernatorial contenders dividing support in so many ways, it was entirely possible that a candidate could have ended up on the WBA debate stage even though the candidate had less actual support than a contender who was excluded.
That was a real prospect. In the Democratic convention straw poll, Professional Fire Fighters of Wisconsin head Mahlon Mitchell won 11.8 percent, while state Superintendent of Public Instruction Tony Evers had 11.5 percent. Would it have made sense to include Mitchell and exclude Evers? Or the next closest contender (businessman Andy Gronik)? Or the next closest contender (state Rep. Dana Wachs)?
Of course not. That’s why Franklin announced: “We think the Wisconsin Broadcasters Association should not use our poll in this way.”
We agree with Franklin. We also agree with the candidates who said there should never be a money barrier to participation in debates. The WBA had suggested that candidates would need to have raised $250,000 before the debate to be allowed to participate — an anti-democratic standard that advantaged candidates who are personally wealthy or connected with big donors.
We were disappointed with the WBA’s initial proposal, as were the candidates, elected officials and democracy groups. There was much agreement with Congressman Mark Pocan, D-Madison, who observed: “By hand-selecting just four candidates to join the debate, the WBA is unjustifiably restricting the field for voters and giving an edge to the candidates it chooses.”
Yet no one seriously suggested that the televised debate should be canceled. What people want is a better debate — or, ideally, better debates.
The WBA should rethink its decision to cancel the debates and give Wisconsin the debates Wisconsin wants.
Let’s begin with respect for the fact that sorting out a field of 10 candidates can be difficult. But there are examples of how to open up the process. Some groups that hope to make endorsements have gone to extraordinary lengths to be fair with candidates. For instance, the Wisconsin’s Choice project of the Wisconsin Working Families Party and Our Wisconsin Revolution has set up elaborate structures for members and allies of the groups to learn about the contenders and vote for favorites in online balloting. As the sifting and winnowing process goes on, the Wisconsin’s Choice initiative will encourage progressives to choose from a final group of four candidates; but the winner still must get more than 50 percent of the vote to secure an endorsement.
While we may not agree with every choice these groups make when it comes to organizing debates, we commend them for beginning with the premise that all the serious contenders should get a fair hearing.
Were the WBA to begin by putting all the gubernatorial candidates on TV for initial debates, we could imagine a sifting and winnowing process that might in a later debate feature presumed front-runners. That’s not our favorite approach, but it could get the broadcasters moving toward the more tightly focused exchanges they have said that they prefer.
Another approach might feature groups of candidates going at it — three or four around a table with one moderator, another three or four with another moderator and so on. Then the groups could shuffle in future broadcast debates, so that all the candidates would eventually face one another.
The constant in these two scenarios is an increase in the number of debates. We are always for more debates — and for the options that might extend from them. We believe that Wisconsinites would welcome a busy schedule of televised forums this summer.
But, at the very least, we’d like to see the debates that were initially proposed go forward.
Even if the WBA does not take all our counsel, we hope it will renew its initial proposal to organize primary debates this summer and that they will feature all of the Democratic gubernatorial candidates and Republican U.S. Senate candidates. The debates are needed, and meeting that need would provide a fine example of public service broadcasting.
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