Debate overload? Gov. candidates will spar 25 times by Election Day

Health care debate
The three major party candidates for governor, (left to right) Democrat Mark Dayton, Republican Tom Emmer and Independent Party candidate Tom Horner, talk health care issues at a debate sponsored by the Minnesota Hospital Association and Aging Services of Minnesota on Friday, Sept. 24, 2010.
MPR Photo/Mark Zdechlik

If you had a dollar for every time Minnesota's three major party candidates for governor met for a debate, you'd have 18 bucks -- and by the Nov. 2 election, you'd be sitting pretty with $25.

It seems like Democratic nominee Mark Dayton, Republican nominee Tom Emmer and Independence Party candidate Tom Horner have been debating a couple of times a week.

One national political analyst notes that there have been more gubernatorial debates in Minnesota this year than in all the other states combined. The three meet for another debate today at the University of Minnesota.

Even political junkies likely have struggled to pay attention to the various forums that have kept coming, one relentlessly after another, since the August primary.

Washington University in St. Louis Political Science Professor Steven Smith said there are two reasons there are so many debates this year. First, there's no incumbent in the race. If Gov. Tim Pawlenty were seeking re-election, it's unlikely he would agree to so many debates.

Also at play, Smith said, is the three-way dynamic.

"If it's a two-candidate race, and one decides not to debate there is no debate," he said. "So the number of debates can be very small if one candidate simply feels that it would be a disadvantage. But in a three-candidate race, it just takes two to have a debate and that almost forces the hand of the third one to show up."

The result is a debate every few days.

TPT debate
IP candidate Tom Horner (left to right), Republican Tom Emmer and Democrat Mark Dayton debate education issues at a Twin Cities Public Television debate on Thursday, Sept. 23, 2010.
MPR Photo/Tom Weber

Privately, the candidates joke about the endless debates. But publicly they send a different message.

As he left a recent Minnesota Public Radio News debate, Horner was asked whether he learned anything new during the latest forum.

"No," he said, "but I've been with these two gentlemen a lot in the last two months."

Still, Horner said all the debates are a good thing.

Education debate
Keesha Gaskins (left) with the League of Women Voters moderates a gubernatorial debate on education with DFL candidate Mark Dayton, Independence Party candidate Tom Horner, and Republican Tom Emmer on Friday, September 10, 2010.
Photo courtesy of the Association of Metropolitan School Districts

For Smith, it's no surprise Horner is a big fan of the forums, because without them he likely would not be as well known as he is.

Republicans and Democrats have plenty of money to get their message out. Horner does not, and the debates give him much-needed exposure.

"But there is a point of diminishing returns and I think in the Minnesota case we may have reached the point in the last month where there have been so many debates that the individual debates just don't receive much attention," Smith said.

Multiple debates also cut into campaign schedules and derail candidates' efforts to stay on a particular message. In the 2002 race for governor, former Democratic Congressman Tim Penny, running as the Independence Party candidate, debated more than 20 times.

Duluth debate
(left to right) Independence Party candidate Tom Horner, Republican Tom Emmer and DFL candidate Mark Dayton debate Tuesday, Sept. 7, 2010, in Duluth, Minn. The candidates debated tax policy, job creation, and business permits.
MPR Photo/Tom Scheck

"It's fatigue," Penny said of repeated debates. "You know, you just kind of run from one debate to another."

But Penny maintains regardless of how candidates feel about numerous debates, the more they get together the more voters end up finding out about them.

"You learn a lot more when there are more debates, a mix of formats, a mix of issues covered," he said. "You're going to get candidates off script more frequently that provides benefit to voters because it gives you a chance to see, at least to some degree, what a candidate really thinks or how a candidates thinks on their feet."

Republican strategist Maureen Shaver, who worked on both of Pawlenty's gubernatorial campaigns, said the debates have helped Dayton, Emmer and Horner hone their messages. But after so many, they no longer have much value for the candidates.

MPR debate
MPR's Gary Eichten hosts the gubernatorial debate with (left to right) DFL candidate Mark Dayton, Republican Tom Emmer and Independence Party candidate Tom Horner at the Minnesota State Fair on Friday, September 3, 2010.
MPR Photo/Jon Gordon

"If I were doing the strategy I would say 'OK, enough; we've done enough of them I want to go out and meet the people,' " said Shaver, a lobbyist.

She said the candidates' time would be better spent targeting independent voters who will likely swing the election.