UPPER ARLINGTON, Ohio (WCMH) — Nearly 3 in 4 people in Ohio’s 15th Congressional District say candidate debates are important, but Republican Mike Carey and Democrat state Rep. Allison Russo (D-Upper Arlington) will not be meeting on a debate stage.

Almost half — 49.4% — of likely voters in the 15th District surveyed last week by pollsters at Emerson College in partnership with NBC4 said it is “very important” that candidates participate in a debate before an election.

And another 23.8% of the 445 residents in the poll, conducted Oct. 14-16 among likely voters, said debates are “somewhat important.” That’s more than 73% of voters who think it’s important for candidates to debate.

The Emerson College/NBC4 poll is representative of OH-15’s party affiliation makeup. It also weights for gender, age, education, race, and region based on 2020 turnout modeling. Polling was conducted via landline phone and text-to-web, and its margin of error is +/- 4.6 percentage points.

For most polls, you can read the margin of error (MoE) like this: If the poll were to be done again 100 times, in 95 of those times the results would be within “X” percentage points of the original.

So let’s say a national poll of a sampling of registered voters, with an MoE of +/- 3, has:

  • Joe Biden at 53%
  • Donald Trump at 47%

  • You can be 95% certain that a hypothetical poll of all registered U.S. voters would yield results between these extremes:

  • Biden 56/Trump 44 (+3 more for Biden, -3 fewer for Trump)
  • Trump 50/Biden 50 (+3 more for Trump, -3 fewer for Biden)
  • Importance of debates

    Debates are "a vetting process," said David Pepper, a Democratic strategist and the most previous chair of the Ohio Democratic Party. Pepper believes candidates have a duty to provide unscripted answers to tough questions as a service to voters.

    "You want to know that your state Rep. or your Congressional person is actually up to the job," Pepper said. "And you don't know that by the fact that they sit in a room and call people for money, or tweet, or micro-target a digital ad to a handpicked universe."

    The 15th District is a conservative-leaning, geographically diverse carving of Ohio's middle. It includes urban and suburban parts of western Franklin County, all of Madison, Pickaway, and Fairfield counties, and a large rural swath southeast.

    Ohio 15th congressional district wikipedia map
    A map shows Ohio's 15th U.S. congressional district. (Source: Wikimedia Commons)

    "You know (if candidates are up to the job) a lot better if they have to stand on their own two feet and don't have a script in front of them," Pepper said regarding debates, "and have to answer questions from someone like you or someone from the general public who has a concern and won't just throw them a softball."

    NBC4 reached out to Ohio Republican Party chairman Bob Paduchik but was told he was too busy Wednesday for an interview about debates. The state GOP did not respond to a request for a statement.

    "I think voters rightfully want to hear candidates' thoughts on issues, how they respond to questions that they don't have ahead of time," Russo, the Democrat in the race, told NBC4.

    Russo Carey 15th district side-by-side
    Democrat Allison Russo, left, and Republican Mike Carey, right, are the major-party candidates running in the 2021 special election for Ohio's 15th Congressional District. (Photos via Russo campaign, Scott Olson/Getty Images. Illustration by Ben Orner).

    Carey, the Republican, has yet to accept NBC4's offers for on-camera or written statements. Instead, a statement on debates from campaign spokesperson Blaine Kelly reads, "Allison Russo has aired two campaign attack ads based on the same lie and we're not going to debate a candidate who practices the Nancy Pelosi-like gutter politics that Central Ohio voters have consistently rejected."

    No debate despite multiple efforts

    NBC4 has hosted a number of political debates in recent years, including on-ballot issues, Congressional races, and state and local matchups. Staff wanted to facilitate a debate between Carey and Russo, and the first email went out the day after the August primary.

    NBC4 sent at least eight emails and made 17 phone calls to each campaign. Carey's team gave several reasons for why they couldn't debate, including a conflict about a birthday party and complaining about Russo's political ads.

    "This is an important part of the democratic process," Russo told NBC4. "And when you have a candidate like my opponent who doesn't agree to the debate process, that is a very scary thing for our democracy and should give voters pause and question how transparent that individual is going to be as an elected representative."

    Russo's team suggested a debate like one that was held in Georgia, where only one candidate showed up. But a true debate with all candidates — an idea that the Emerson College/NBC4 poll shows voters support — was not to be for the 15th District.

    The Columbus Metropolitan Club, a nonprofit that hosts regular forums on current events, also had aspirations for a Carey-Russo debate. Vice president of programming Doug Buchanan said the CMC tried for weeks to host a debate for the 15th District candidates, just as it did in 2020 and 2018, but only one campaign accepted their invitation.

    "We were really hoping that we would have a terrific opportunity for candidates to share their positions with the public, and unfortunately, this time that just didn't happen," he said.

    The Emerson College/NBC4 poll showed 19.4% of respondents still had "no opinion" of Carey, and neither did 28.8% of Russo. And about 9% had never even heard of either candidate, something a debate could have helped.

    "It's a way for voters to get to know candidates and to know where they stand," Buchanan said.