WASHINGTON – Niche debates are a presidential candidate's last hope to try to squeeze out a few extra votes in a crowded field, and one of the most unusual to come is the Democrats' Aug. 9 event sponsored by the Human Rights Campaign and Logo, MTV's gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender affiliate cable network.
Seven of the eight Democratic candidates will appear at the Logo/HRC debate, where lesbian rocker Melissa Etheridge and Human Rights Campaign Foundation President Joe Solomonese will do the questioning. Delaware Sen. Joe Biden declined to attend, citing a scheduling conflict.
Questions will be focused solely on issues important to the GLBT community, including gay marriage, civil unions and fighting HIV/AIDS and discrimination. The forum will be broadcast live in front of a studio audience in Los Angeles to 26 million Logo subscribers. The network's Web site will also run a Webcast.
"This forum continues MTV Networks' tradition of engaging vital niche audiences with voting and the electoral process," said Brian Graden, president of entertainment for the MTV Networks.
According to Ross Baker, political science professor at Rutgers University, the pressure will be on the candidates to prove to the audience they are on board with gay and lesbian issues — without alienating the more conservative members of the party or the general electorate.
But winning in this forum may put some Democrats "in peril," Baker said, particularly in a tight race. Baker pointed out that while the candidates may be in a "bidding war" for the gay community's allegiance in the primaries, the Republicans will be looking to exploit whatever they say in the forum for the general election.
"Swing voters and potential Republicans are probably less sympathetic to the issues important to the Human Rights Campaign than would be Democratic primary voters," Baker said.
Moreso, he added, the candidates will be forced to approach the issue of gay marriage — a lightning rod not only the general electorate, but within the Democratic Party, particularly among moderates and African-American voters, a loyal Democratic bloc.
"Clearly, the thing the candidates are going to have the biggest problem with is gay marriage," he said.
Of all the candidates, only former Alaska Sen. Mike Gravel and Ohio Rep. Dennis Kucinich support gay marriage, which leaves the remaining candidates attempting to pull off some fancy footwork under the hot lights at the Aug. 9 forum.
Questionnaires filled out by the Democrats for the HRC reveal that all the candidates support anti-discrimination laws, state civil union and domestic partnership provisions and measures guaranteeing same-sex couples the same federal employment benefits as heterosexual couples. They also support repealing the military's "don't ask, don't tell" policy and more comprehensive sex education.
While the GLBT bloc has the power to move volunteers and voters in the primaries, analysts question how critical it will be in the general election. The 2000 U.S. Census found 594,301 reported same-sex households in the country. According to a CNN exit poll of more than 13,000 respondents following the 2004 presidential election, 4 percent of voters identified themselves as gay or lesbian.
In that same poll, 25 percent of total voters supported same sex marriage. In that election year, voters passed all 11 state ballot measures banning gay marriage and curtailing rights for same-sex couples.
Since the HRC/Logo debate was announced, the candidates have expressed enthusiasm and underscored their support for gay rights issues during the recent YouTube-sponsored debate.
But Larry Sabato, a professor of politics at the University of Virginia, said the candidates probably aren't thrilled by the prospect of having to pander to the GLBT audience, or for that matter, any other niche group.
"Candidates would prefer to speak to these groups privately and give them private assurances in exchange for (campaign) money and volunteers," he said, but the special interests have figured out that they can't do that anymore and expect the elected president to do much for them.
"These groups are getting smart. You have to put (candidates) on the record, again and again. You structure the questions — push, push, push."
Groups Try to Score Debates of Their Own
Gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender individuals. Cancer survivors. Union members. Latinos. African Americans. Seniors. All are sponsoring niche events for the candidates to appeal to their specific social, ethnic, economic or even religious agendas.
The approach isn't new, but the sheer number of niche events these days and the fact that several will be not only televised but podcast, Webcast and preserved forever in YouTube videos make them more significant on a congested campaign trail.
"My goodness, look at the number of forums and debates the candidates are participating in," Sabato said, noting that these events are starting to fill up campaign schedules to the point of saturation. "There are other parts to a campaign."
By the end of the primary calendar early next year, the 2008 presidential candidates will have made their cases to an array of special interests. Already, Democrats have spoken to a tech-savvy Internet audience in a YouTube debate, will be speaking again to liberal bloggers this weekend, held a forum on African-American issues at Howard University in Washington, D.C., and are planning an AFL-CIO debate for a labor-friendly audience of 15,000 at Chicago's Soldier Field on Aug. 7.
Democrats aren't the only ones trying to capture support from captive audiences. Republican candidates eager to shine attend their share of niche forums — though their performances tend to reach even smaller audiences than those expected for the AFL-CIO or HRC forums in August.
On June 30, Republicans attended an event sponsored by anti-tax and Christian conservative interests in Iowa. In March, most of the candidates hit the right buttons at the annual Conservative Political Action Conference. Arizona Sen. John McCain, on the other hand, took a lot of flak for not showing up.
Occasionally, niche groups will try to reach out to candidates from both parties by hosting events on politically charged topics. Stem cell research and access to health care will likely turn up in a pair of cancer-focused forums Aug. 27-28 hosted by cancer survivor and Tour de France champion Lance Armstrong. The same goes for forums sponsored by the seniors group, AARP, in September.
Even when candidates from both parties are invited to niche events, occasionally only one side shows up. That's primarily a result of candidates sensing that their attendance can't help them. For instance, no Republican but Rep. Tom Tancredo went to the NAACP forum on minority issues in Detroit on July 12. Tancredo made light of it when he showed up alone on a stage surrounded by empty podiums put out for each of the other Republican no-shows.
Rep. Duncan Hunter, R-Calif., turned out to be the only Republican at the June presidential forum hosted by the National Association of Latino Elected Officials (NALEO). Hunter is a strong opponent of illegal immigration and the so-called "amnesty" program that showed up in congressional legislation this year. NALEO supports reforms that include temporary worker visas for illegal immigrants.
"It's a big missed opportunity for those candidates not to have addressed our voters," said NALEO spokesman William Ramos, noting that the number of Hispanic voters in the United States is around 9 million. Candidate forums help voters decide who speaks for them, and gives candidates a chance to tap into a major pool of support, he said.
"Across the country, Latinos are asserting themselves politically at the ballot box. ... Pinata politics is over, and we are into serious business."
Jeff Berkowitz, political Web logger and host of the Chicago-based Public Affairs public access cable program attended "30 or more" special interest forums during Barack Obama's Democratic Senate primary race in 2004. He described the forums as "terribly boring … predictable and dull" because even before the events, everyone knew what the panelists were going to ask and how the candidates were likely to respond.
Still, Ramos said niche forums are a beneficial part of the democratic process because of the blowback effect on the candidate.
"They're important because the president of the United States has to represent all Americans, from every background and ethnicity and sexual preference, race," he said. "It's incumbent on the candidate to hear what we have to say."