How GOP Debates Democratized the Presidential Race

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If you’ve grown numb to the gaudy, glittering spectacles that are this year’s televised presidential debates, there’s a reason. Last Tuesday’s Republican forum on CNN was the 11th of 2011, or the 12th if you count a South Carolina gathering last spring that drew just five participants. At this point four years ago, both the Republican crop of candidates and their Democratic counterparts had squared off on network TV seven times apiece. Though dwarfed by this year’s tally, that felt like a lot back then; it had researchers and pundits carping that the frequency of televised tussles were sapping the debates of their impact, drawing less press and changing fewer minds.

For viewers tuning in to learn about the candidates’ policy positions, there is no question we’ve entered a phase of diminishing returns. Notwithstanding the moments that showcased genuine ideological divisions between the candidates – Tuesday’s national-security debate revealed chasms on profiling, the Patriot Act and immigration policy, among other issues — the debates are more commonly a case study in the art of evasion, as contenders retreat to the safe ground of focus-grouped sound bites rather than step into a baited trap on national TV. But despite the banality and the occasional mind-bending moment, these forums have been a pivotal force in the Republican primary race, causing candidates to rise and fall and providing a platform for under-capitalized contenders to spread their message.

The GOP field knows this well. Bad answers hurt the high-flying campaign of Rick Perry (who slipped on skirmishes over his policies on immigration and a mandatory cancer vaccine). By contrast, stellar (or simply splashy) debate performances triggered the unlikely ascent of both Newt Gingrich and Herman Cain. Each harnessed the national spotlight to spur their rise, riding snappy slogans (in the case of Cain) or crowd-pleasing, press-bashing soliloquys (in the case of Gingrich) to the top of the field. Both accomplished the feat despite derision from the media and party insiders, who suspected they were more interested in building their brand or hawking their books than occupying the Oval Office. And both did so despite schedules that saw them forgo traditional retail spadework in Iowa and New Hampshire in favor of TV hits or trips to out-of-the-way haunts.

They’re not the only ones to use a different playbook this time around. For several cycles, winning campaigns in the Hawkeye and Granite States have relied on the same dog-eared blueprint: show up early and often, assemble a robust network of field operatives and volunteers, and stockpile a war chest that funds ads to put you over the top at the end. But skeletal staffs and slipshod ground games have so far been the hallmarks of the 2012 cycle. Candidates are spending less time on the ground in early states, enlisting fewer paid staff and delaying paid media (why spend when you can reach millions of voters for free, seemingly each week?).

Those who have relied on the old formula have struggled. Rick Santorum, an unalloyed social conservative who has spent the most time in Iowa of any candidate and is the only one to trek through all 99 counties, remains mired near the bottom of the field. Michele Bachmann and Jon Huntsman are having the same problem catching on, despite running retail-heavy, single-state campaigns. Meanwhile, the candidates who have relied on free media have thrived.

If debates provide the opportunity for a breakthrough, just as often they underline a candidate’s struggles. Santorum and Huntsman are repeatedly relegated to the wings of the stage, a visual cue for the viewers at home of their moribund poll numbers — a suggestion reaffirmed by a relative lack of speaking time. (At a recent debate in South Carolina, Ron Paul, who often polls in the top third of the field, received just 89 seconds of response time; from his place on the periphery, Santorum regularly barks at the moderator to be given a chance to speak.) Some disparity is unavoidable in these messy, eight-person debates. And in some ways Santorum and Huntsman are lucky: Buddy Roemer and Gary Johnson, two experienced former governors find themselves excluded from the debates entirely. Both have complained bitterly — and it’s a valid complaint — that they’ve been unfairly jilted, their prospective supporters left with the impression that anyone barred from debating must be a marginal candidate. “‘Why should I go hear Gary Johnson?'” the former New Mexico governor told me he imagines voters thinking. “‘He’s not even allowed to debate.'”

In a recent column called “A Strange Way to Pick Presidential Candidates,” the political analyst Stuart Rothenberg bemoaned the outsize importance these forums have taken on. “Debates can convey a presidential candidate’s values and issue positions. I would never suggest that they are completely without value. But there are so many of them that they have created a new context in which candidates for the nation’s highest office are evaluated,” Rothenberg wrote. His point was that the debates, hyped by their hosts networks and dissected by a panel of judges in the press, have taken on the aspect of a “reality show,” and that the skills they showcase — clever slogans, witty ripostes, the cutting one-liner — are hardly the attributes that make a good President.

All of which is true. But neither does soaring oratory or a knack for swapping small talk in an Iowa greasy spoon. Debates force candidates to think on their feet and speak extemporaneously; in many ways they’re a better gauge of intellect, decision-making ability and preparation than the traditional retail model of picking a President. They also showcase these skills to a wider audience, democratizing a process that gives disproportionate sway to small groups of voters in a couple of swing states. And — to an extent — they mitigate the advantage of sheer cash. Sure, sparring with Wolf Blitzer in a cavernous debate hall is a weird way to weed out presidential candidates. But so is outsourcing the job to a relatively homogenous band of Hawkeyes and Granite Staters. The content of the debates may be dispiriting for many viewers, but the volume is an improvement.