Friday, November 18, 2011

Debates in the Nomination Process

Did Rick Perry have a momentary, comical brain freeze in the midst of delivering a potentially powerful conservative message of slashing government, one that he’s dealt with brilliantly by defusing it with self-deprecating humor? Or did he prove by forgetting the easiest of talking points that he’s not even remotely capable of representing the Republican Party as its presidential nominee?

The answer, of course, is both, or neither; it depends on how you look at it. And for most voters, the way they’ll look at it is by how it’s covered by various news outlets; for most Republican primary voters, that means how it’s covered by Fox News Channel, by Rush Limbaugh and other conservative talk show hosts, and to a lesser extent how it’s discussed in the conservative blogosphere. That’s even true of the people who were actually watching the debate -- we're much more apt to remember the clips we see again, and to place what we saw in the context of what everyone is saying about it. But it’s obviously true of everyone else. And remember, even with the debates having unusually large audiences this year, we're still talking about no more than about 6 million viewers, which is small even in the context of the low rates of primary election participation.

Which means that what really matters is how the people who make decisions at those outlets saw Perry's flub...or, more accurately, how they choose to portray it, whatever they may think about it. So what really matters is what the various producers, reporters, and writers want to say, and in turn what and who influences them, which might be ratings/page views, or other institutional incentives, or their own personal political views, or what GOP opinion leaders say, or whatever.

This comes up because Jonathan Chait speculated this week that perhaps party control of nominations will be loosened this cycle because of the effects of the debates:
The more important function of the debates is that they circumvent the party apparatus. Republicans are less dependent on tuning into the media – in this case, usually Party organs like Fox News – to learn who the leading candidates are. They can squeeze the merchandise themselves.
I think that's not only wrong, but backwards. Debates are more mediated through party leaders than the older methods of contacting voters: direct contact in the living rooms and doorsteps of Iowa and New Hampshire, and TV ads.

Now, we don't really know exactly how what I call the GOP-aligned media works...hey, there's enough trouble trying to figure out all the biases in the old neutral media. It is certainly possible that the rise (or revival, since it dominated the 19th century) of the partisan press empowers some party factions and actors at the expense of other ones. And it's true that even if party actors completely control the nomination process that they still must form opinions of the candidates in some way (given that we're talking about too many people to meet with all of the candidates one-on-one), and so it's very possible that some of them use the debates to form their own view of the candidates. So I'm not going to say that the debates don't or can't matter in the nomination process. They can, and do, matter.

What they don't do is provide an unmediated interaction between candidates and rank-and-file voters. Debates are far more mediated than ads or direct campaign contacts. And that means that to understand the effects of the debates, we need to know who is interpreting them and how.


  1. As you say, the number of people watching the debates is rather small compared to the primary electorate. Over the first extended primary battle that went the distance, Obama and Clinton combined for something like 36 million votes, slightly more than half of the 69 million Obama earned in the general election.

    With there being no contested Democratic nomination this time around, I think you can guesstimate (a term I KNOW political scientists will love ;) a potential universe of 35 million GOP primary voters. This means (at best) 1/6th are watching the debates, likely less. I would expect a larger percentage are looking on from the early voting states.

    The question is, where are these people getting their information, and do the polls hint at this? Certainly Romney's name recognition is helpful to him in this contest, and Ron Paul really does appear to have a hard ceiling of around 15, maybe 20% - from libertarians that align with conservatives.

    I don't think you can attribute the poll swings mainly to people viewing FOX "News" Channel, listening to talk radio, surfing the conservative blogosphere and watching the debates. I would suggest that at a minimum, you'd also want to factor in the Sunday morning Political Programs, conservative newspapers across the country, and local evening news broadcasts.

    Just an opinion, but I'd say that the influences matter more in the reverse order I listed them.. at least in terms of what less involved primary voters hear, and end up discussing at work, when they go to church, at their kids' sports league, etc.

    I don't mean to say that the usual suspects of influence don't play a big part in setting the agenda, and in their own way shaping the coverage of events (or lack of coverage as with Ron Paul). Just that the more casual voter (maybe 2/3rds of the total?) get their information from glancing at the first few paragraphs on the front page, or see the 2-minute debate wrap up on the late news.

    I say this is why Perry's uh.. uh.. uh.. gaffe is so devastating, agree with his politics or not, it's an irresistible clip for every newscast in the country. And so it becomes much bigger of a story than "what would it mean to eliminate the Dept. of Energy?".

    (Bonus Parlor Game to Consider in All This: Do the honchos at FOX "News" Channel and Rush Limbaugh want a Republican or Democrat in the White House in 2013?)

  2. I second JS's points about voters having more diverse sources of info than the conservative info loop, and that those sources (and how they are viewed) are even more likely to end up transmitting only superficial info.

  3. I think some commentators, like Chait, see that disintermediated political engagement is now possible, and confuse that possibility with the actuality.

    I don't know about the US, but here in the UK the range of television channels available to all viewers has expanded enormously in the last 5 years, such that everybody can (if they choose) watch the proceedings of our Parliament in full. Any major speech by a politician is always on the internet; policians diaries are public; they all write blogs, etc. etc.

    In principle there is no need to rely on influencers. Ten years ago every polically-engaged person in the UK read a national daily newspaper every day; many, like me, read more than one. Now I never read one - not even online. And I certainly hear a lot more directly from policians than I used to - or than I would if I relied upon the mainstream media, or the "party spokesmen".

    However, we are still very much in the early-adopter stage. Everybody can get disintermediated politics, but not everybody is getting it. Indeed, I suspect JB would argue that given the investment of time and effort needed to keep up with what politicians are saying, for most people it is more rational to rely on trusted commentators. So disintermediated politics will remain a minority pursuit.

    Even I (politically-engaged enough to be following closely the politics of another country) still rely on commentators, though I have a wider choice of commentators nowadays. For example, I've been watching some of the Republican primary debates, but I also read what JB has to say about them.

    We are in a mixed-economy situation, where we can't assume that people are getting their political information directly, but we know that if they want to, they can.

  4. "...for most people it is more rational to rely on trusted commentators."



    People now have more options available, as to the trusted commentators they will rely on. Once you understand and calibrate to those commentators, you're good to go, and the information they provide becomes useful.

    For example, on this site, chock full of hardcore partisan lefties... we all know the flow... and can calibrate accordingly. Doesn't mean a non-lefty can't make use of it, as we certainly can. We just have to recognize what the site is, and apply the proper filter. Do that, and we can fully trust this site.

    And the more of these we have available to the information consumer, the better off we all are.


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