Political campaigns are self-interested enterprises. They are not in the business of altruism, fairness, philanthropy or benevolence.
They don’t do things – intentionally anyway – that benefit their opponents. Their reason for existence and singular objective is to win on Election Day. Period.
So any time a candidate or campaign champions some purportedly high-minded cause or position, it’s best to be ready with a good pinch of salt.
So it is with Eliot Cutler, who last week doubled down on his calls for gubernatorial debates with Gov. LePage and Mike Michaud.
Appearing alongside empty podiums bearing the names of his opponents, Cutler said, “It’s not that (the debates) are important to me, or important to reporters. They’re important to the voters.” Cue the Morton Salt girl.
The truth is, the debates are very important to Cutler and his repeated calls for them are a calculated political decision.
First, debates are a powerful forum for free media. Many are televised to a wide audience and they spawn subsequent coverage in every other media format.
If Cutler can get his opponents on stage, he has a mechanism to deliver his message and engage a vast swath of voters at no cost to his campaign.
Second, Cutler has clearly determined that debates present the best format to outshine his rivals.
His bet is that an inarticulate Michaud and a gaffe-prone LePage will position him as the candidate of intellect, big ideas, leadership and vision.
Third, standing on a stage with his two opponents – both of whom are outpolling him by margins close to 30 percent – validates Cutler’s campaign and makes him appear every bit the contender. That could create some needed excitement and momentum around his candidacy.
Fourth, debates can sometimes produce an exchange that fundamentally alters the trajectory of a race. Cutler is no doubt hoping for just such a “game changer” to kick-start his campaign heading into the fall.
So, yes, debates present voters with an important opportunity to see and hear from the candidates in an environment that occasionally encourages spontaneity and an authentic give and take, but Cutler’s motivation is hardly magnanimous.
In fairness, LePage and Michaud are making similar strategic political calculations around the number and timing of debates, too.
Certainly LePage’s team is aware of their candidate’s penchant for bluster and offense, as well as playing loose with the facts.
So there is an inherent risk that the governor might produce the very “game changer” Cutler desires if he takes to the stage too frequently. Much better to keep him in tightly scripted, campaign-managed events and push off debates as long as possible.
What’s more, LePage’s base of support is basically locked-down and unlikely to grow (or shrink), so there is little political upside to debating his opponents.
LePage also wields the power of incumbency, controlling the levers of state government and maintaining a bully pulpit that drives his re-election messages through official channels.
In fact, for every news release issued by the LePage campaign this year, five releases have been issued by the governor’s office.
So why stand on stage when you’re re-election messages are already getting out for free?
For its part, the Michaud campaign wants to avoid anything that validates Cutler or gives him a public forum to attack their candidate.
To the extent Cutler fades into irrelevance, all the better for Michaud. And the campaign is surely aware that, historically anyway, extemporaneous public speaking was never Michaud’s strong suit.
Finally, debates require a significant investment in staff and candidate preparation time.
Every hour the candidate spends in debate prep is time he doesn’t spend raising money, staying on message and engaging voters on the campaign’s terms.
So there is a necessary resource-based, risk-reward calculus that every campaign must make to evaluate how, when and where to debate.
As it stands, there are somewhere between four and six debates scheduled between October 8th and the 21st, depending on which campaign you ask. That seems like more than enough, especially since there isn’t necessarily a direct correlation between more debates and added voter value. That fact is, these forums can become rote and uninteresting.
Admittedly, the debates are coming late and spreading a few into mid-September isn’t a bad idea, especially since early voting has already begun.
But the late schedule also gives Cutler a compelling rationale to campaign deep into the fall and hold out hope that his “game changer” arrives.
Michael Cuzzi is a former campaign aide to President Obama, Secretary of State John Kerry and former U.S. Rep. Tom Allen. He manages the Boston and Portland offices of VOX Global, a strategic communications and public affairs firm headquartered in Washington. He can be contacted at: