Michigan task force aims to spark more political debates in the state

The Michigan Debate Task Force is a coalition of 10 education and business organizations from across the state. 

Stage at the final Republican Party debate, hosted by Fox News, before the 2016 Iowa caucuses at the Iowa Events Center in Des Moines, Iowa.

Stage at the final Republican Party debate, hosted by Fox News, before the 2016 Iowa caucuses at the Iowa Events Center in Des Moines, Iowa.

One of the ongoing debates in politics is whether it’s worth having a debate between candidates anymore. 

Is it really something that helps inform voters? At least one new group says debates can definitely educate the electorate if they are conducted in the proper way. 

The Michigan Debate Task Force is a coalition of 10 education and business organizations from across the state. 

Dave Dulio, distinguished professor of political science at Oakland University and a founding member of the task force, says the group is starting by focusing on Michigan’s U.S. Senate race. 

Dulio says the task force wants to take the process of setting up a debate out of the hands of political operatives.


Listen: Michigan Debate Task Force founder Dave Dulio on their efforts to spur more political debates in the state


Oakland University Distinguished Professor Dave Dulio: (Edited for clarity) That’s the real reason behind the task force and why we started this effort in the first place. The debates that occur here in Michigan, or have occurred over the last many election cycles, have been dictated by the candidates. Whether or not debates would occur, how many there would be, when they would occur. The 2022 election cycle was really the low point of candidate debates in Michigan. We didn’t have any between the candidates for Secretary of State or attorney general, there were only two between the gubernatorial candidates and neither of them were before absentee ballots were in the hands of voters. What we want to try to do is say to the candidates, ‘look, we understand that you make these decisions based on your interest and what’s best for you and your campaign. But that doesn’t necessarily match up with the public interest and what’s good for voters.’ So what we want to do is have one of three debates before each of the voting options is available to folks across Michigan. One before absentee ballots go out, one before early voting starts and then, of course, one before Election Day.  

Quinn Klinefelter, WDET News: And, again, you’ll try to talk them into it by saying that this is good for democracy, whether or not it is going to do anything for your campaign? 

DD: Yeah. I think that the amount of attention we generate will make it difficult, if not impossible, for the candidates to shy away from. 

QK: It may not be that great for informing the public, but realistically, if you have a candidate that’s way ahead in the polling, some of them simply may not want to do a debate because they’ll feel they can only lose ground in some way. What would you say to candidates like that? 

DD: Well, that’s certainly been the case in recent campaigns here in Michigan. But that is why this (U.S. Senate) election in this campaign cycle is the perfect time to launch this effort. Because it’s an open seat race, whichever candidates emerge from the primaries, it is very unlikely that one of them has a huge advantage. They’re all going to face the need to inform voters about their vision for what it would mean to be the senator from Michigan, what they want to accomplish while in office, why they should be the next senator rather than their opponent or opponents. So our hope is that these candidates are excited about this opportunity and would look forward to engaging with each other. The way the dynamics of this campaign are shaping up, this is going to be a barnburner, I think, to the end, and that will create an entirely different context than normally happens when there’s an incumbent running against a weak challenger. We do not have that this time around.  

QK: Some people wonder about the worth one way or the other of debates period. Some complain that they often come out sounding like it’s just one side repeating their typical stump speech talking points, followed by the other doing the same. That there’s very little real back-and-forth discussion. And that a lot of times, if there is something back and forth, it can often end up sounding a bit mean-spirited, especially lately. Do you think your debates can somehow address those issues? 

DD: We hope that they can. Certainly the task force can’t control what the candidates themselves say. But the presence of a strong moderator or moderators who can ask probing follow-up questions and then call out candidates who aren’t answering the question will be important. We’ll work hard to make sure that that’s the case. We eventually want to get to a point where the discourse is elevated and candidates who participate in these debates, maybe not this election cycle, maybe not the next one, but cycles down the road, know what the expectations are, know that they are going to participate in a civil and respectful manner that really showcases their candidacy rather than trying to tear down somebody else. 

QK: “Civil” and “respectful” aren’t a lot of the words that you hear nowadays in regards to, say like the U.S. Senate and others where you’re talking about having debates among the contenders. When you’re talking about getting candidates that would meet a certain criteria, how are you addressing looking at any third-party or fourth-party or fifth-party candidates? Some of these seats have a dozen people or more running for a single office. Where will you draw the lines to say ‘You should be allowed to debate’ and ‘You should not?’ 

DD: We have to have a cut-off at some point, right? What we’ve decided is that the criteria are rather simple. You have to have all the correct paperwork filed with the state of Michigan and the Federal Election Commission on time. You have to have a campaign website that has policy statements that are clear indications of an agenda or vision for your time in office. A candidate would have to have been covered in the press as a statewide candidate. And the final one, the one that is likely going to be criticized mainly, is a 5% threshold in public polling in the month before the debates begin. 

QK: So, conceivably, they could get on the ballot without actually qualifying for the debate. 

DD: As is the case with many instances of debates that are held across the country, yes. 

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  • Quinn Klinefelter
    Quinn Klinefelter is a Senior News Editor at 101.9 WDET. In 1996, he was literally on top of the news when he interviewed then-Senator Bob Dole about his presidential campaign and stepped on his feet.