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Analysis: Debates might aid voters, but candidates pass

October 5, 2018

JACKSON, Miss. (AP) — If a debate in Mississippi’s U.S. Senate race to fill out the unexpired term of the retired Thad Cochran had gone off as planned last Thursday at Millsaps College in Jackson, you might be reading more about the event in this space.

But the debate fell apart after appointed Republican Sen. Cindy Hyde-Smith said she wouldn’t be there. Then top Democratic challenger and former U.S. Agriculture Secretary Mike Espy said he wasn’t coming if Hyde-Smith wasn’t there. Pretty soon, Mississippi Public Broadcasting dropped plans to broadcast the event if only Republican state Sen. Chris McDaniel and Democratic candidate Tobey Bernard Bartee were coming.

Meanwhile, in the state’s other U.S. Senate race, Democratic challenger and state Rep. David Baria is holding town halls across the state, challenging incumbent U.S. Sen. Roger Wicker to come face him. Wicker is resolutely ignoring Baria.

So, unless the candidates bump into each other at the Piggly Wiggly in Carthage, it doesn’t look there are going to be any debates in either of Mississippi’s two U.S. Senate races.

Does it matter?

Maybe.

In presidential campaigns, voters consistently say that debates are much more helpful than candidate advertisements in deciding whom to support. The Pew Research Center, which has surveyed voters after every presidential campaign since 1988, found after the 2016 campaign that 63 percent of voters said presidential debates were very or somewhat helpful in deciding which candidate to vote for. That’s about the same as how voters had felt in previous presidential elections.

Certainly, a debate could have a chance of forcing Hyde-Smith to talk about something else besides her unwavering devotion to President Donald Trump. That’s important because, considering the historic longevity of Mississippi senators, if Hyde-Smith holds onto the seat to which Gov. Phil Bryant appointed her, she’s likely to remain a senator long after Trump has retired.

While Hyde-Smith has an issues section on her website, her platform on a dozen complicated national issues amounts to three or four sentences apiece. Espy also has a list of issues on his website with only a little more detail, although he has fleshed out some of his positions. McDaniel has issued a Contract with Mississippi that has detailed positions, but voters might not know, for example, that he favors a radical overhaul of the federal judiciary that could sharply reduce its powers.

So maybe voters could learn something from a debate.

On the other hand, there’s a fair amount of political science research suggesting debates don’t have much long-term effect on a candidate’s standing with voters. Research also suggests voters may be more influenced by the reaction of their friends and mass media than by what’s actually said in the debate.

At least in the derby to replace Cochran, all four candidates took the stump at the Neshoba County Fair earlier this summer. Wicker didn’t speak at Neshoba and hasn’t faced off with any opponents since winning the seat in a 2008 special election against Democrat and former Gov. Ronnie Musgrove. Cochran went decades without debating. He won election to the Senate in 1978 without meeting Democrat Maurice Dantin and independent Charles Evers face-to-face. Cochran and former Democratic Gov. William Winter did face off in 1984. But that was the last time Cochran ever took the stage with an electoral challenger.

There might be one more chance for Mississippi voters to see all the senatorial candidates. The Mississippi Economic Council touts that all six are on the schedule for its pre-election Hobnob event, set for Nov. 1. But don’t get your hopes up. It won’t be a debate.

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Jeff Amy has covered politics and government for The Associated Press in Mississippi since 2011. Follow Jeff Amy on Twitter at http://twitter.com/jeffamy . Read his work at https://www.apnews.com/search/By%20Jeff%20Amy .

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