MADISON – If a debate airs on a fall Friday in Wisconsin, and no one’s there to watch it, does it really matter?
The answer is, not really, according to a Wisconsin politico.
John McAdams, political science professor at Marquette University, says much more important to the outcome of Wisconsin’s nationally watched U.S. Senate race will be the ad buys in the final weeks leading up to the election.
“My excuse is not many other people will be watching it either,” he said.
While presidential debates are sometimes more compelling, debates for statewide races rarely move the meter for voters, the political scientist said.
The final gubernatorial recall debate, which took place the Thursday before the June 5 election, drew 110,000 viewers on WISN-TV, which airs in Milwaukee and surrounding communities. By comparison, Monday night’s Green Bay Packers football game on the same station garnered some 360,000 viewers.
Case in point: Baldwin donor Mary Ann Zownir and Thompson donor Helen Bakke.
“You know, to be honest with you, I’ve been working a lot. I didn’t even know it was on tonight,” said Zownir, a Madison resident who donated $500 to Baldwin’s campaign, when asked if she’d be watching the debate. Asked when she found out about it, she said, “Just now when you told me.”
“I didn’t realize it was tonight,” echoed Bakke, also of Madison, who donated $1,000 to Thompson. “Tommy’s a favorite of mine, you know. Had I known that, I would definitely be watching.”
Both voters said they’d probably watch the debate after being informed of it. They both planned on watching the first presidential debate on Wednesday.
Neither is likely to be swayed into switching teams.
New information rarely comes from debates. At best, voters get to see a candidate’s character traits on display. Anyone who pays attention generally knows where the candidates stand on the issues. For those who don’t pay attention, well, they probably won’t watch.
In as tight a race as this one, the small potential for upside for either candidate in a debate lends naturally to cautiousness.
“If you are ahead, the rational strategy is to avoid a gaffe and a screw up,” McAdams said. “It’s especially rational in state races because the audience is so much smaller. The only way these debates can have a large effect really is if there is an echo effect where a candidate makes a gaffe or says something that can be used against them in advertisements.”
So while legitimate issues, such as health care, fiscal, tax and foreign policy, merit vigorous discussion, they’re more likely to be taken up seriously in the Senate chamber rather than in two-minute back-and-forths leading up to an election.
Instead, viewers will likely hear modified versions of the same stump speeches candidates give over and again on the campaign trail. The media will get a good sound bite or two, as candidates throw rhetorical grenades into the lap of their opponents. Unlike real grenades, these ones create little damage.
Baldwin, on the other hand, labeled Thompson a Washington insider who cares more about padding the pockets of corporate fat cats than Wisconsin families. She, as her ads have done, pushed the point of Thompson’s “sweetheart deals” for drug companies at the Medicare table – arguably ad nauseum.
While the debate provided more time to expound on record and policy, each candidate remained on the same message pumped out in the millions of dollars of campaign ads that have submerged Wisconsin’s airwaves.
McAdams said there are some factors yet to determine the outcome of this race, namely the “high stimulus election” – political jargon for high voter turnout in presidential elections – and late advertising dollars that flow from Super PACs to either candidate.
Karl Rove, former advisor to President Bush, via his Crossroads Grassroots Strategies PAC, spent more than $2 million in recent weeks on ads criticizing Baldwin.
“People who are pretty political – like a journalist or political scientist – sometimes fall into the trap that other people are as political as we are,” said McAdams. “There are lots of people out there who don’t care that much about politics. But if you get to them with a good aggressive ad campaign a few weeks or days before election, it can make a substantial difference.”
That point isn’t lost on Thompson, trailing Baldwin in the most recent polls.
“What really matters is not the debate. What really matters is the millions of dollars of ads which he has to have if he wants to win this election,” McAdams said.
Contact Ekvall at [email protected]