Candidates for a U.S. Senate seat from Indiana will debate for a second time Tuesday, and rivals for the 3rd Congressional District seat will debate twice next week.
Will these televised contests change voters' minds or simply reinforce existing opinions of the candidates? What, if any, effect will the debates have on election outcomes?
“In a close race, they can certainly have a huge influence,” said Michael Wolf, chairman of the political science department at Purdue University Fort Wayne.
The battle between Democratic Sen. Joe Donnelly and Republican challenger Mike Braun is a statistical tie in the polls, including one taken by PFW's Mike Downs Center for Indiana Politics. Wolf said Donnelly likely won the 2012 election because Republican opponent Richard Mourdock said during a debate that pregnancy resulting from rape “is something that God intended to happen.”
Mourdock's remark was “received poorly by the Indiana public and really kind of changed the dynamics of that campaign,” Wolf said. Donnelly won by 5.7 percentage points.
The Downs Center poll, conducted Oct. 12-16, showed that 11 percent of voters were undecided in this year's Senate election.
“That's the winner right there, delivering on those,” Wolf said.
Political scientist Joe Losco agreed, saying in an email that “the election will hinge on whether ... undecided voters choose to go to the polls at all.”
Yet both Losco, professor emeritus at Ball State University, and Wolf said they expect Donnelly and Braun to play as much to their supporters as to undecided voters during Tuesday's debate in Indianapolis.
Losco said debates “reinforce support for the viewer's favored candidate. In general, we tend to see in debates what we want to see and ignore the rest.”
Wolf said, “More and more electioneering is focused on really reinforcing your base and mobilizing your base.”
Indiana Republican Party Chairman Kyle Hupfer said he has seen polls indicating the percentage of undecided voters is in single digits. He said neither Senate candidate will be targeting a certain audience during their debate.
“At this point, the candidates are who they are. They're going to be often times giving answers that they've already given numerous times in other settings, and they'll focus on the differences between the two candidates,” Hupfer said.
Indiana Democratic Party Chairman John Zody said that unlike TV ads, debates are an engaging format “to point out the contrasts between Joe Donnelly and Mike Braun.” The two debated Oct. 8 in LaPorte County.
As for likely topics that Braun, Donnelly and Libertarian candidate Lucy Brenton will wrangle over, Wolf noted that Downs Center polling shows immigration is the top issue among Republicans and health care is the leading concern among Democrats.
Gerry Lanosga, president of the nonpartisan Indiana Debate Commission, which is sponsoring the debate, declined to identify what issues might come up Tuesday. He did say the commission “is keenly interested in having the candidates stick to the issues” raised by people who submitted questions.
“Also, under the rules, rebuttals are not automatic, and our moderator has the authority to ask follow-ups if candidates stray too far off course,” Lanosga said in an email.
Zody said Donnelly will want to talk about his support for the Affordable Care Act mandate requiring insurers to cover pre-existing medical conditions and that Braun “can't point to one thing that he actually supports that would protect pre-existing conditions.” Donnelly also will try to make the case that Braun would be a “rubber stamp” for President Donald Trump's agenda, Zody said.
Hupfer said Braun will talk about “who the real Joe Donnelly is and what his true voting record is ... and that it's not a moderate record that he tries to tout when he's back in Indiana.” He said Braun will argue that Donnelly has typically voted how Democratic leaders tell him to during his 12 years in the Senate and House.
Republican U.S. Rep. Jim Banks and Democratic challenger Courtney Tritch will debate Sunday and Friday at Fort Wayne TV studios. Tritch is the best-financed and best-organized Democratic candidate in many years in the heavily Republican 3rd Congressional District, where Banks attracted 70 percent of the vote two years ago.
“She has to, in the debate or somehow in an ad buy, convince people who have voted for him before not to vote for him” this year, Wolf said.
These will be Banks' first debates, as none was scheduled ahead of the contested Republican primary election in 2016 or that year's general election.
“This is a big test for both of them,” Wolf said about Banks and Tritch. “You could have a breakthrough for her, but it can also be a minefield for him. It's no wonder you see a challenger wanting half a dozen debates and the incumbent preferring fewer debates. That's not uncommon; it's not strictly something in this district.”
Tritch originally challenged Banks to have six debates and then four before they settled on two.
According to news reports, debates have been conducted or are scheduled in only three of Indiana's nine U.S. House districts – the northern 2nd, the northeast 3rd and the central 5th, all represented by Republicans. In four other Republican districts, Democratic candidates have complained that their GOP opponents have refused to participate in debates.
Sunday: 3rd Congressional District candidates, 7 to 8 p.m. at WPTA studios, live broadcast by ABC21.
Tuesday: U.S. Senate candidates, 7 to 8 p.m. at Newfields in Indianapolis. Consult TV listings. The debate will be streamed online by www.indianadebatecommission.com.
Friday: 3rd Congressional District candidates, 7 to 8 p.m. at WANE studios, live broadcast by WANE 15.