Although Thursday’s news that Texas Governor Rick Perry may skip the rest of the Republican presidential debates has been met with widespread derision by both pundits and other candidates alike, refusing to debate may not be that bad of a decision.
Perry plans to participate in the Nov. 9 debate at Oakland University in Michigan, but he has refused to commit to any subsequent debates. His sullen, rambling performances in the previous Republican debates have been universally panned, playing a huge role in his free fall from a frontrunner in August to fourth place in October. It seems like his campaign has made the calculation that whatever heat he’s getting now for the announcement would pale in comparison to the sustained negative press he’d get if he had another awful series of debates over the next few weeks.
All of his rivals in the Republican Party reacted as if the Perry campaign had just signed its own death warrant. Steve Grubbs, the chairman of Herman Cain’s Iowa campaign, chided, “You have to go to debates if you want to succeed in the new era.”
Steve Schmidt, a former George W. Bush strategist who managed John McCain’s 2008 presidential campaign (remember when McCain tried to use the financial crisis as an excuse to suspend his campaign?), said that skipping the debates would be “like skipping the third quarter of a football game. … It’s not practical. Plus it’s a stipulation he can’t make an argument and is unprepared on the issues.”
But it’s worth remembering that Perry managed to avoid debating his Democratic opponent, former Houston Mayor Bill White, during the 2010 Texas gubernatorial campaign. The decision, which his top strategist Dave Carney made according to a data-driven plan straight out of “Moneyball”, allowed Perry to coast to a landslide victory by relying on his strengths: meticulously planned speeches and on-the-ground retail campaigning.
Critics of Perry’s decision may be underestimating just how distrustful of the media Republican voters actually are. He is trying to capture the same Tea Party voters who still consider Katie Couric asking Sarah Palin which newspapers she reads to be a “gotcha question.” How upset will they really be that Perry is refusing to let people like Brian Williams and Anderson Cooper — the “liberal lame-stream media” — press him on his positions? Indeed, Perry is already trying to spin his refusal to debate as a decision by a Washington outsider to rebel against the elitist media.
“These debates are set up for nothing more than to tear down the candidate,” [Perry] said Tuesday on The O’Reilly Factor on Fox News Channel. “So, you know, if there was a mistake made, it was probably ever doing one of the (debates) when all they’re interested in is stirring up between the candidates instead of really talking about the issues that are important to the American people.”
It may not be a winning strategy for a general election, but this is a primary contest where Herman Cain — the guy who made a web-only ad in which his chief of staff smokes a cigarette like an action hero (go to the 38-second mark) — has shot to the top of the polls despite essentially ignoring campaign organizing and fundraising, as well as nearly every major national issue. Is the notion that Perry could make a comeback while ignoring the Republican debates really that crazy?