Littwin: There once was a debate
Fair and Unbalanced
If you’re wondering about Coffman-Romanoff III, let’s just say the debate won’t be confused with “Rocky III” or even Coffman-Romanoff II. The matchup was — there’s no other way to put it — a mismatch, which, strangely, seemed to be fine with Mike Coffman, who apparently figured he had nothing to gain by engaging the quicker Andrew Romanoff.
The funny thing is he’s probably right. Romanoff won big, which in practical terms means, well, nothing.
It’s an old political saw that you can’t win debates — you can only lose them. And there were no gaffes in the Congressional District 6 showdown. Coffman stumbled a few times. For example, he had trouble answering a yes-or-no question about humans and climate change because, as a conservative Republican, he’s stuck with the absurd “no” position. The crowd gasped, and Coffman later tried to qualify his “no.”
But without a real gaffe, the debate may have been moderately entertaining and even moderately informative, but, allow me to reiterate, it meant — I know you’re with me here — nothing.
I don’t mean to say it was a waste of time. I love debates. These days, they present one of the few chances to see a candidate possibly go off message. In fact, in this era in which campaigns have become a game of hide-the-candidate, debates are one of the few times you get to see them at all.
But here’s a bet for you: All the money spent on this race, all the TV ads, all the debates, all the hard feelings, all the charges and counter-charges, all of it will come to mean, yes, nothing. Or at least somewhere very close.
District 6 is not a close race because of the quality of the candidates, although the quality is pretty high. It’s close because the district is split fairly evenly among Democrats, Republicans and unaffiliateds, which is a rarity in the era of the gerrymander. Don’t trust anyone’s prediction here. Coffman barely won last time against Joe Miklosi. Romanoff is running in a terrible climate for Democrats. Incumbents have a built-in advantage. Romanoff has high name recognition.
And, of course, this is the first election under the new election laws — ballots mailed to anyone breathing, the opportunity for last-minute registration. The rules figure to help Romanoff — that’s the guess, anyway — but is it really Romanoff they’re helping?
The Romanoff-Coffman race might as well be a District 6 stand-in for the Udall-Gardner race. Unless something happens in this race to change the dynamics, it’s hard to see where ticket-splitting comes in. Campaigns always say close races are determined by the ground game, but, here in Colorado, that might actually be true. With a hugely important, and very close, U.S. Senate race and a pretty important, and very close, governor’s race, the money spent on getting potential voters to vote will be unprecedented.
The statewide ground-game campaign will overwhelm everything else. And in any case, the parties, in this divided age, have pretty much defined where candidates stand on the issues. Both races feature moderate-liberal versus mainstream-conservative. Yes, there are nuanced differences in positions — Coffman flipped on personhood before Gardner did, and Romanoff doesn’t take PAC money, while Udall does — but there’s no real question how anyone is going to vote once elected or re-elected. You’ve probably seen the charts, wherein the most liberal Senate Republican — if there is one — is more conservative than the most conservative Senate Democrat — if there is one. That’s where this race is.
The media are often criticized — and with some justification — for doing too much horse-race coverage and not enough on the issues. But there is no public polling in District 6. We assume the race is close. The internal campaign polling, we’re assured, is within the margin of error. But there’s no horse race to fall back on.
And the so-called free media have no chance against paid media. The campaigns — along with the outside money — frame the issues with TV ads. It’s hard for anything else to be heard above all the noise. Sandra Fish at Colorado Public Radio is keeping track of the decibel level. As of Friday, political TV-ad buys were at nearly $74 million in Colorado, and that doesn’t include cable.
There are new ads out from the national parties. Republicans hit Romanoff for being an “architect of one of Colorado’s largest tax hikes,” which is a reference to Referendum C. You may remember Republican Gov. Bill Owens playing a leading role in that one. And Democrats hit Coffman on the same women’s health issues for which Udall is hitting Gardner. You may have heard it before.
Here’s the funny part: I wouldn’t be surprised if this 2014 campaign is studied for years to come as the time when TV ads finally hit the much-feared saturation point. That’s when TV ads can’t be heard above the noise of, yes, TV ads.
And if the TV ads can’t be heard, what chance does a one-sided District 6 debate have?
Mike Littwin runs Sundays in The Aspen Times. A former columnist for the Rocky Mountain News and Denver Post, he currently writes for ColoradoIndependent.com.