Six candidates are too many for a thoughtful political debate, but as the televised debate season launches Tuesday in the Democratic campaign for governor, there’s not much anybody can do about it.
With no public poll results to use as a basis for excluding candidates, NBC 5 political editor Carol Marin will be the first to try to wrestle the entire six-candidate field into a one-hour program.
“It is an unwieldy size,” allowed Marin, the debate moderator, who will not be constrained by strict equal time requirements but still feels a responsibility to allow each candidate to be heard.
It’s an old conundrum: Does every candidate whose name appears on the ballot deserve an equal opportunity to participate in debates or only those regarded as having a serious opportunity to win?
And who gets to decide who is a serious candidate?
NBC 5 reserved the right to exclude candidates polling at less than 5 percent, a common method of limiting debate participation.
But there haven’t been any public polls yet in the governor’s race, let alone a consensus of data. So all six candidates have been told they will be allowed to participate.
ABC7 also has informed Democratic candidates invited to its March 2 debate that it expects to use a 5 percent polling threshold.
This is more than an issue for journalists.
It’s also a problem for the Democratic candidates for governor who are looking to the upcoming debates as a chance to showcase themselves against the better-financed campaign of billionaire J.B. Pritzker.
For them, every minute of airtime spent on another candidate is one less minute for them to have an opportunity to make a connection with a voter without having to pay for the privilege.
But none of them want to complain out loud about their desire to whittle the field for fear of either appearing to be undemocratic or biased.
Most people would tell you the three major candidates in the race are Pritzker, businessman Chris Kennedy and state Sen. Dan Biss of Evanston.
That would leave anti-violence advocate Tio Hardiman, Madison County regional school superintendent Bob Daiber and Dr. Robert Marshall in the also-running category.
But just try telling that to Hardiman, the only African-American candidate, who received 125,500 votes running against Pat Quinn in the 2014 Democratic primary and thinks that makes him the favorite this time.
“Remember: all the candidates were at the debate when Trump was running,” Hardiman said, referring to the stage-filled early days of the 2016 Republican presidential primaries.
Excluding poorly-financed candidates such as him amounts to “blocking out the voices of the working class,” Hardiman said.
It would also be tricky to exclude Daiber, the only Downstate candidate in the race, who already believes the deck has been stacked against him unfairly by a Chicago news media that hasn’t treated him seriously.
The crowded field posed challenges when the candidates appeared last week at Editorial Board meetings for the Chicago Sun-Times and Chicago Tribune. In the digital age, these once private interviews in which the candidates seek the newspapers’ endorsement have evolved into live-streamed debates with similar considerations.
How much time really needs to be allotted to someone such as Marshall, a perennial candidate whose main campaign proposal is to divide Illinois into three separate states?
The NBC debate, which is being billed as a candidate “forum” to allow for a more free-wheeling format, airs live at 6 p.m.
It is a collaboration between Channel 5, Telemundo, Chicago Urban League and the Union League Club of Chicago.
At least six more major debates are scheduled, three of them televised, before the March 20 primary.
By then, there shouldn’t be much debate about who the real candidates are.