Monday, December 12, 2011

Catch of the Day

Well, it was yesterday, but here's one for Ross Douthat for a nice Sunday column pointing out the futility of the GOP dream that their candidate will use the debates next fall to expose Barack Obama as a fraud. He's right: that's not how debates work, and choosing a nominee because he or she will be best equipped to "win" the debates is a really foolish thing to do.

The problem with expecting much out of the general election debates is that there just aren't a whole lot of undecided voters who are watching with open minds. Most voters are partisans, so they hear what they want to hear (it's common for post-debate polling to find a large partisan split on who "won" the debate). The rise of the partisan press only intensifies that likelihood. I'll bet heavily that an uncomfortable Obama moment (should there be one) will show up rarely if at all on Rachel Maddow's show, and similiarly Hannity isn't going to be putting any gaffes by the Republican nominee into heavy rotation. So for most voters, debates only push them further in the direction they were headed anyway. True independents, on the other hand, may be open to persuasion, but they tend to be the least likely to watch the debates or even follow the news about them (the more highly informed and interested voters are, the most likely it is that they're partisans).

The problem is that Tea Partiers aren't going to want to hear what you really want to do if your goal is to pick a good general election candidate: find the candidate who offers the fewest surprises, makes the blandest target, and is ideologically moderate.

Since activists and highly attentive voters also tend to be far more ideological (and farther from the center) than others, in the real world, they often face a trade-off between the candidate who is most likely to win and the one that would be their ideal president. That's no fun to think about. Much better, activists both left and right have found, to pretend that ideological extremism will be rewarded, perhaps by motivating higher turnout from those who are normally upset with their party for selling out. It seems plausible to many highly attentive voters; after all, they are frequently upset at (for conservatives) RINOs, and surely they know several people who have given up on the party for its compromises and moderation. I think that's the right light in which to read the Newt debate theory; it's another way to get around the uncomfortable fact that a boring, experienced, relatively moderate candidate would in fact have the best chance to take down Barack Obama.

Mix that with some of the most resonant myths about Obama (and really -- haven't these folks watched him at a press conference?), and you get the idea that the key is voting for someone who will dominate in debates. But it just won't work.

And: Nice catch!


  1. The other myth is that Newt Gingrich is a great debater. Yes, pitted against Rick Perry or Herman Cain, he looks like a master. Otherwise passable.

  2. Interesting post, and I wholeheartedly agree with the analysis. Is there any research on how debates do matter? Or is the takeaway just that, barring a huge mistake, they just don't?


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