While the decision by Ralph Norman, candidate for South Carolina’s 5th Congressional District seat, not to participate in a Friday debate makes political sense, it deprives voters of a useful way to judge the candidates in the race.
The special election for the seat vacated by Mick Mulvaney of Indian Land, who was tapped to be President Donald Trump’s director of the Office of Management and Budget, will be held June 20. Norman, the Republican candidate from Rock Hill, will face Democrat Archie Parnell of Sumter along with third party candidates.
Norman announced Tuesday that he will not participate in a Friday debate sponsored by the Rock Hill chapter of the NAACP. He said he also would skip a forum to be held Monday by the South Carolina AARP.
Parnell said he would attend both events, as well as a forum sponsored by the S.C. Farm Bureau on June 15 in Camden. Norman will join other candidates for an S.C. Educational TV forum on June 16,
Norman said he thinks voters in the district know where the candidates stand and the differences in their platforms, and another debate is unnecessary. He said he would spend the time remaining before the election to campaign around the district.
This is a common approach for front-runners. In a recent poll, Norman was running about 10 points ahead of Parnell.
The 5th District also is heavily Republican, which gives Norman a considerable leg up. Mulvaney won the seat, which includes York, Chester and Lancaster counties, in November over Democrat Fran Person by a 20-point margin.
The risk of a face-to-face debate also can figure into the calculation of whether to participate. The candidates could utter a gaffe that might harm or even doom their chances of winning.
The candidates could stumble over an answer or be forced to answer a question they would rather not address. The candidates could say something that might offend a large number of voters.
That’s why candidates seeking to close the gap on front-runners often are far more eager to debate than their opponents. Those running behind will take all the exposure they can get.
But risk comes with any campaign. There is, in fact, some risk in refusing to debate one’s opponent.
Face-to-face debates and forums give voters the chance the learn more about where the candidates stand and the differences between them. It gives voters a chance to gauge how the candidates think and how they act under pressure.
Norman is most likely wrong about most voters in the district being familiar with where both candidates stand on the issues. In all likelihood, many voters have not tuned in to this election and know little about either candidate.
A debate might have been informative for any undecided voters or those simply hoping to learn more about the candidates. We think such opportunities to compare candidates side-by-side are good for the democratic process.
But Norman, it appears, has chosen to play it safe. That might be politically savvy, but we wish he had decided to join the debate.