Sunday, June 26, 2011

Can Mitt Romney Set the Debate Schedule?

Mitt Romney recently announced that he would not attend the next primary debate, which is scheduled for July 10th. At the same time, Romney announced that he would be attending several other primary debates, which are scheduled for August, September, and October. Romney's campaign offered, as one reason for not attending, that the July debate sponsors had not yet secured a TV deal. Obviously few candidates have much incentive to attend debates that don't appear on television. But suppose Romney decided not to attend some of the televised debates? Can he leverage his supposed frontrunner status to set the debate schedule?

There are good reasons why a frontrunner might want to avoid debates. Frontrunners want, most of all, to maintain their lead. Debates present opportunities for change. A frontrunner may make a serious gaffe, or may be outshined by a competitor. By contrast, there are few chances for a frontrunner to really expand his lead. Romney in particular has reason to worry about debates, as they allow moderators (or other candidates) to challenge him on Romneycare. In addition, candidates perceived as frontrunners are often attacked by every other candidate at a debate--especially during the later debates.

All things considered, Romney has ample incentive to cull down the debate schedule. Could he get away with it? Would the media decide that a debate without the frontrunner wouldn't really "count"? And could Romney's absence lead other candidates to follow suit, skipping the debate to avoid looking like a second-tier candidate?

Precedent is mixed. Recall that Romney declined to attend the first primary debate on May 5th. The media largely downplayed the importance of the event. Newt Gingrich decided not to attend either, timing the beginning of his campaign for immediately after the debate. Of the purported first-tier candidates, only Tim Pawlenty appeared.

But there are good reasons why May 5th won't repeat itself. Recall that at the time, potential candidates like Mike Huckabee, Donald Trump, Mitch Daniels, and Sarah Palin had not yet made it clear that they weren't running. Also, Michele Bachmann and Jon Huntsman weren't in the race (for reasons that had nothing to do with that debate). Now the field is largely settled, with only Rick Perry and Chris Christie looming on the horizon. If Romney opts out and no one else does, it won't look like a "second-tier only" debate. It will just look like Romney's missing.

Despite its perceived unimportance, the May 5th debate had an impact on the race: It allowed Herman Cain to step forward as the chief Tea Party candidate. His poll numbers immediately shot up after the appearance. Indeed, the absence of other candidates only meant Cain got even more TV time. Bachmann, despite having planned to announce her candidacy later in the month, made sure to attend the June 13th debate to avoid giving Cain a second such opportunity. If Romney does attempt to skip televised debates, other candidates have every reason to show up anyway and trumpet their campaigns--and prevent other candidates from hogging airtime.

There's one other factor to consider: Just because Romney's not there doesn't mean other candidates can't attack him. If anything, they would be more comfortable criticizing him, since they know he can't defend himself. And he can be criticized for not showing up.