Friday, May 6, 2011

The First (Half-Field) Debate

Early cycle presidential debates are a strange thing, indeed. This one will be remembered as the heroin debate (I was tempted to write that this is the junk you get smack at the beginning of the horse race, but thought better of it)…and perhaps for what will certainly be a short-lived Herman Cain boomlet. No, I’m not going to explain if you didn’t watch; you don’t want me to. Instead, I’m going to do a bit of context-setting over here, and I’ll save the candidate reviews for a post over at Greg’s place.

Here’s the thing: presidential nominations serve multiple purposes. The party selects a candidate, to be sure. But it also chooses a platform. I’m not talking about the formal document that will be debated by earnest activists, ratified by the convention when only C-SPAN is watching, and then filed in a drawer and mostly ignored for the rest of the campaign. I’m talking about formal and informal bargaining and negotiations between candidates, activists, organized groups, and, yes, occasionally rank-and-file voters that really does produce the issue commitments that the nominee will make. So that happens. But that’s not all! Fringe groups within the party sometimes run candidates who have no chance to win but air minority views. And then sometimes self-promoters with no chance to win the nomination find their way to the stage, auditioning for a show on Fox News or MSNBC or whatever.

So all those things are happening at the same time. For that matter, even just settling on the candidate is (not surprisingly, I suppose) confusing. There’s a lot of it that goes on more or less behind the scenes, as formal party operatives, campaign and governing professionals, party-aligned interest groups, activists, and politicians all try to settle on a single choice – or fight over that choice – through endorsements, campaign finance donations, and other ways of putting resources to work. But there’s also a stage that is for mass electorates, who are strongly influenced by all of that other business, but also appear to be capable of acting independently, at least to some extent.

So how do early debates fit in? After all, we’re at the stage of insider bargaining, but debates are on the surface about mass audiences and electorates. Are early debates irrelevant? Or do insiders looking for a candidate pay attention to how the contenders do in these venues as part of their vetting? Really, neither reporters nor academics know the answer, since the true answer is probably some form of “it depends.” I can tell you that there’s a major bias among the press to overemphasize the most visible, televised, portions of the campaign. But we’re not talking about a general election campaign here, in which at the end of the day party, the economy, and other structural things are going to matter so much that debates really can’t do much. In primary elections, it really is at least theoretically possible for a well-timed quip to matter in a way that it just can’t in the fall. So while I wouldn't want to make too much of these things, they're not inherently irrelevant, either.

Meanwhile, as an avowed fan of the rituals of US politics, I'm officially happy to have them back, even the inane Frank Luntz post-debate focus group. But really, no hurry in having the next one, at least as far as I'm concerned.


  1. i have a question about the nominating process. although i know it is impossible for someone not supported by the elites to win the nomination, how close could Herman Cain get to winning in Iowa? ive believed that he may do better than people expect because of how much more time he has spent in iowa getting to know people. So my question is, without the support of elites, how far could herman cain go? as low as 1%? as high as 20%? or does he get pushed out before it even starts?

  2. Meanwhile, as an avowed fan of the rituals of US politics, I'm officially happy to have them back

    Me, too. One thing I love about Plain Blog is that it offers intelligent reasons for following the rituals of politics, and explains why they're legitimately important. It makes me feel far less guilty for finding it all so fascinating.

  3. David: I think that folks like Cain rarely drop out before votes happen. Now, on shoestring budgets, they aren't really contesting a lot of the early primaries, but they usually manage to rent a bus or minivan, get hotel rooms, and feed themselves and their staff for a few months there. So, I would fully expect Cain to be listed as a choice in IA and NH. His vote share will depend on how many real candidates there are. 4 of them, and he's an asterisk. 2 of them, and he'll get a solid share, quite possibly licking at double-digits. I think 20 is out of reach, but 15? 10? With only 2 real candidates, yeah, maybe. But I think Paul is really going to suck up most of the discontent with the frontrunners. He's a "fringe plus" candidate, because he certainly has some name recognition.

  4. Good analysis Jonathan,

    The libertarian “minority candidates” in last night’s debate were clearly the least polished, but it was good to see them there. Gary Johnson had probably the most sensible immigration policy I’ve ever heard from anyone and yes, Ron Paul’s heroin line was a classic.

    It’s important that libertarians and others with little chance of winning be included in these debates. Without a parliamentary system, the Presidential election is really the only way that most voters will be exposed to such minority views. Ron Paul’s 2008 run has created a real coalition of active libertarians within the GOP that didn’t exist before. Very few of them are in Congress yet, but the experienced activists and lower officeholders will give them the potential to perhaps make real gains in the future.

  5. Just a quick side-comment: normally I fully agree about the inanity of any Frank Luntz focus group, but the one after this debate was actually quite interesting.

    The near unanimity among the respondents that Herman Cain won the debate was not something I've ever seen in one of those before. Virtually all 30 or so of these people really, really seemed to like Cain--many of whom knew nothing about him before that. That probably does not qualify as statistically significant, but I thought it was quite striking and clearly a real boost for Cain since that video will be making the rounds on conservative web sites and the like.


Note: Only a member of this blog may post a comment.

Who links to my website?