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Can debates in governor’s race have an impact on the campaign?

By Brandon Smith, IPB News | Published on in Government, Politics
It appears likely the 2024 governor's race won't include a debate ahead of the general election run by the Indiana Debate Commission. (Lauren Chapman/IPB News)

Indiana’s three candidates for governor — Republican Mike Braun, Democrat Jennifer McCormick and Libertarian Donald Rainwater — agreed this week to at least one televised debate this fall. Another is still being negotiated.

But can the debates matter?

Mike Downs Center for Indiana Politics Director Mike Wolf said political science research largely agrees that gubernatorial debates can make a difference. And that’s particularly true in elections where other races, like presidential campaigns, take a lot of attention.

And he said there’s evidence of that in Indiana from 2012, when Mike Pence went into the debates with double-digit polling leads.

“Three debates later, John Gregg had cut that, was really aggressive in those debates,” Wolf said. “And it ended up being a three percent point race and Pence didn’t get a majority.”

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Wolf said the debates can have a cascading effect for an underdog candidate.

“If there’s stories that come out about it, if there’s some excitement and some campaign finance, then potentially you can get up on air and you can use what the highlights of those debates were to really, in effect, drive home the narrative that you’ve been pushing.”

Wolf said it is possible that, in Indiana’s current political climate, the margin for a Democrat to overcome will be too large, even if the debates have an impact.

The one confirmed debate will be hosted by WISH-TV Indianapolis on Oct. 3. The other debate — still being worked out — will be hosted by Fox59-CBS 4 Indianapolis. That likely means the Indiana Debate Commission, which has hosted gubernatorial debates since 2008, will be left out.

Brandon is our Statehouse bureau chief. Contact him at bsmith@ipbs.org or follow him on Twitter at @brandonjsmith5.