Andrew Cuomo

‘Fraught with danger’: Why Cuomo might want to avoid a debate

Nixon and Teachout want debates. Frontrunners have little incentive.

2010 New York State gubernatorial debate

2010 New York State gubernatorial debate Kathy Kmonicek/AP/Shutterstock

Like a Renaissance gentleman throwing down a glove to request a duel, Democratic gubernatorial candidate Cynthia Nixon released video a challenging her opponent to meet her on the debate stage.

“It’s been more than two months since I first agreed to debate Governor Cuomo one on one – and he still hasn’t committed to a single debate,” Nixon said in the video, which was posted to Twitter. She first challenged Cuomo to a debate in May.

Despite her desire to challenge her opponent on a wide platform, it is not certain whether holding a debate would actually sway any votes, unless there was an overwhelmingly good or bad defining moment for either candidate.

Political science shows that debates usually do not dramatically alter public opinion. NBC News/Wall Street Journal presidential general election polls from 1992 to 2012 show that the candidate who was winning in the polls before the debates was the candidate who won the popular vote on Election Day.

However, primary debates have a better chance of influencing voters than debates for the general election. Only 23 percent of primary voters said they would support Nixon in a recent Quinnipiac poll, compared to 59 percent for Cuomo. Having a debate could be an opportunity for Nixon to get her message out to a larger audience and expose a weakness in her opponent.

Primary debate audiences are typically small and composed of voters with strong partisan stances, meaning that the viewers of a Cuomo/Nixon debate would be more liberal than the average Democrat. This could give Nixon the opportunity to present her values to a group of more progressive voters. Even if the debate is relatively boring and there are no major gaffes, it would have given Nixon the opportunity to make connections with voters.

On the other hand, the situation is “fraught with danger” for Cuomo, said Jeanne Zaino, a political science professor at Iona College. Since he is leading Nixon by such a significant margin in the polls, and his opponent is still relatively unknown, Cuomo could only lose by debating Nixon if she performs well. Cuomo has the benefit of being the incumbent, and being well-known, but that could also be a cause for concern in preparing for a potential debate.

“Nixon hasn’t done this before so there’s not a lot they could draw from,” Zaino said about debate prep. “She has the benefit of looking at past debate performances.”

Perhaps Nixon also hopes to exploit the gender element in the race. The governor has gotten into hot water in the past for acting condescending towards women, such as when he told longtime Albany reporter Karen DeWitt that she was doing a “a disservice to women” by focusing on sexual harassment in Albany alone. If he debated with Nixon, she could attempt to provoke him into irritation, which might end up looking as if he is berating her. “If we did see something gendered, it would be very, very bad for the governor,” said Zaino.

In 2000, when Hillary Clinton was running for senator in New York, her Republican opponent, Rick Lazio attempted to intimidate her by walking over and standing close to her while she gave her answers. It reflected poorly on him, and Clinton one the race.

However, if Cuomo decides that debating Nixon is too risky, it could be worse for him than not debating her at all. He may decide to debate her at an awkward time to minimize risk, not in prime time and during the middle of the summer. Nixon said in her video that she had heard he would agree to a debate under those circumstances, and called for two debates, one upstate and one in New York City. If Cuomo refuses, it could that make him look afraid of Nixon.

That risk might be an acceptable one for a frontrunner with such a wide lead, as Cuomo did not debate Teachout in the 2014 primary despite her eagerness for a match in person. Despite this, Cuomo won the 2014 primary with over 60 percent of the vote.

On Wednesday, Democratic attorney general candidate Zephyr Teachout also called for a debate against her three opponents, New York City Public Advocate Letitia James, Rep. Sean Maloney and Leecia Eve. Eve called for a debate the following day. In a potential primary debate for attorney general, James has the most to lose, as she is widely considered the establishment candidate and is the frontrunner in the race. “When you’re in the lead, this is not what you want,” said Zaino.