Friday, December 9, 2011

The Return of Debate-A-Rama

After a break, the Republicans are resuming their intense debate schedule with one on ABC tomorrow (Saturday) night and a second on Fox on the 15th. Indeed, these will be the first open-topic, all-candidate debates in a month. And they'll take place only three weeks before the Iowa Caucuses. Voters, at least in the early states, are about to get involved.

That said...I don't think I can agree with the NYT's Michael Sheer, who says that these two debates "are shaping up to be the most important...yet." Yes, primary debates can be important, but remember that right now the campaigns are intensifying in Iowa and New Hampshire, and so the debates and later debate-driven news coverage must compete with a blizzard of TV ads, candidate appearances, and grass-roots campaign organizations. So while they could be important, it's less likely.

As it turns out the single most important debate of the cycle was probably the very first one, way back in May -- a debate that Mitt Romney skipped. Why was it important? The five candidates there included Gary Johnson, who performed badly, and Herman Cain, who trotted out his act to a national audience for the first time and was rewarded with a Fox News post-debate panel who loved him. Think about it: if Johnson had "won" that debate and Cain lost, it's very possible that Cain would have been the Maury Taylor of this cycle, rarely getting invited to debates and barely being treated as a real candidate, while Johnson could have secured a solid place as a serious candidate and, perhaps, threatened Ron Paul's hold on the libertarian vote. While none of Cain, Johnson, or Paul was likely to win anyway, that debate really did shape the visible portion of the contest for the next six months.

Next? The debate in which Tim Pawlenty inexplicably walked away from his "Obamneycare" attack line, along with Pawlenty's subsequent failure to rally back, especially in the last debate before the Ames Straw Poll. The debates were not the only factor in Pawlenty's demise, but they surely played a significant role.

And then, of course, the various Rick Perry disasters, culminating in the infamous Third Agency Oops death moment. As with Pawlenty, there was more to Perry's demise than just the debates, but they surely did quite a bit to undermine him.

It's possible that one of these debates will matter as much, but again, it's much less likely now that the rest of the campaign has kicked in, especially in Iowa and New Hampshire. So while I'll be watching (and, as usual, tweeting) the debates, and you never know when something spectacular could happen -- and Sheer could well be correct that these may be nasty debates -- my bet is that we've already seen the most important moments.


  1. True, with the early states just weeks away, there's lots more campaign activities for voters to pay attention to than just TV debates.

    But why do campaigns spend most of their time and money close to Election Day, rather than a few months or a year before? The answer is obvious: most people don't worry about who they're going to vote for until the election nears, and rightfully so.

    I think that's what Sheer's getting at: the timing of these debates is what makes them important. The fact that people are paying more and more attention to the candidates far outweighs whatever distracting effect the increased amount of TV ads and candidate appearances might have.

    In other words: Because we are so close to IA and NH, whatever happens at these debates could strongly effect the outcome of those contests -and, in turn, effect who the nominee will be. The significance of that dwarfs the combined significance of all the debates that came before.

  2. Speaking of ads...

    Last night on "Nightline" there was a segment on the recent Perry ad and on how many of them are subliminally attacks on their opponents. I saw it in real-time, but here is the video . I think it was towards the end.

  3. The only real interest I have in the next debate are seeing the strategies and games that Romney will play. We are now approaching a sort of bizarro world re-run of the '88 Republican primary, with Romney as Bush, Sr., the 'wimpy', unconvincing, born of privilege into political family establishment candidate who's shown a strong prediliction for campaigning dirty and a lawmaker with a long record and a reputation for having a bit of a temper/mean streak.

    Romney went Rovian on Perry during those crucial debates before 'oops' by attacking him on illegal immigration despite his own record and touching Perry on the shoulder to demonstrate who's alpha dog, despite Romney's obviously inferior masculinity. My expectation is for Romney to hit Newt on individual mandates and downplay or misrepresent his legislative or intellectual accomplishments try precipitate a Dolesque angry, "stop lying about my record" moment or just even any display of temper.

    That reminds me, I need to buy some popcorn.

  4. It's the same thing is with every other outward, seemingly important, seemingly redundant aspect of political communications - from big speeches, to convention bounces, to running mate selections, to ad buys, to swing state polls, etc., etc. On further analysis, they always seem to tell us what we should already have known, or what was happening anyway... so "reveal" or "determine" nothing or very little, sound and fury at best, etc.

    If there were no debates, Perry would still be an imbecile pandering to the extremes, Romney would still be a wooden puppet trying to approximate sentience, and Newt would still be a cross between Alcibiades and the Pillsbury Dough-Boy, and we would still be in the xth year of a worldwide crisis of finance capital with the parties arguing over modes of adjustment toward a very uncertain future.

  5. @Anon 1:40, I gotta disagree with you on the strategy for Mitt. He already tried the thing with individual mandates. You didn't hear about it because it didn't work so well. Here's my advice.

  6. "If there were no debates, Perry would still be an imbecile pandering to the extremes,"

    While a true statement, i think it misses the point: most voters wouldn't have a soundbite friendly demonstration of that. With this many debates in 2000 would GWB have not been exposed?

    I think this post has demonstrated how significant the debates have been in winnowing out candidates.

    The interesting question is why so many more debates this time. Is it that the cable networks weren't around in 2008, or is it that like generals always preparing for the last war, republican strategists were so impressed by Obama's 2008 debate performance against McCain that they were saying, if not, never again, at least debate performance is a very important factor?


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