If a Candidate Waffles in the Forest, Does Anybody Hear?

I haven’t spent a lot of time covering this year’s debates, mainly because there are so damn many of ’em that I could spend all my time doing nothing but that, and there’s too much other stuff to write about.

Debates are considered key moments in a campaign. Candidates spend a lot of time preparing for them. Staffers dissect performances and adjust tactics for future encounters. But how many people pay attention?

Well, we’ve got a pretty good test case before us, and the answer is “hardly anybody.”

Last night, VTDigger hosted a debate for the two Democrats running for attorney general. By Digger’s own account, the affair highlighted some key disagreements between Washington County State’s Attorney Rory Thibault and Charity Clark, who was ex-attorney general TJ Donovan’s chief of staff.

After it was live-streamed, the debate was posted on YouTube. As of this writing, it has been viewed 645 times.

Six hundred forty-five. For comparison, the last time the Democrats had a competitive AG primary was in 2012 when Donovan challenged Sorrell and nearly won. 41,600 people voted in the primary.

That’s, um, [checks notes] a lot more than 645.

Now, I don’t know if the YouTube figure includes the people who watched the debate live. I suspect not. But still, only a tiny fraction of the smallish primary electorate tuned in. Or was even aware of it, despite Digger’s attempts at promotion. And if that 645 is all-inclusive, well, that’s just sad.

I’m sure the Digger article got a lot more eyeballs than the video. But the audience for Digger’s political coverage is, shall we say, a select crowd. Their bandwidth is being severely tested this year with all of the competitive primaries. There are debates galore. You’ve either got to devote a ton of time to them, or you shrug your shoulders and give ’em all a pass. Except maybe the Democratic Congressional debates.

What’s more, those who are most politically engaged are also the most likely to have already made up their minds . I’m sure there are some folks who are suspending judgment until they’ve seen the candidates in action, taking careful notes throughout, but that’s a tiny minority of those who will cast primary votes.

So last night’s debate will have little to no effect on the outcome of the primary.

Which is too bad, since the Digger report indicates that this debate offered some useful information for the undecided. Clark, for all her merits, was put back on her heels when asked to defend Donovan’s policies. Thibault seemed to offer new approaches, while Clark was reluctant to differ from her former boss even though he’s already out the door and on to his corporate gig.

This is why I’m skeptical of dynastic succession. If you play next-person-up, you’re less likely to get a fresh viewpoint and new ideas. Personally, I’m interested in a break from the disappointing same-ol’, same-ol’ AGO under Donovan and his overtenured predecessor Bill Sorrell. Thibault seemed to offer that, while Clark couldn’t bring herself to do so. Which is a little weird, considering that her campaign has made practically no mention of the Donovan connection.

But precious few will be aware of Clark’s vacillations. Far more will see her campaign ads or read a postcard. Even more will look at their ballots, make a somewhat informed vote for U.S. Senate and Congress, and then kinda shrug and either bypass the AG race or pick a name for seemingly inconsequential reasons. (“Rory? Kid named Rory bulled me in seventh grade! I’m voting for Clark!”)

Which is why just about any outcome in any of these primaries shouldn’t be terribly surprising. And it’s why I haven’t spent much time viewing, or reporting on, the debates. If I did, I’d be suggesting they are more important than they actually are.


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