January 11, 2016
It’s a basic question. What is the purpose of pre-nomination presidential debates? Is it to help a party choose a nominee? Is it to narrow the choice of nominees? Is it to prepare the eventual nominee for battle in the fall? Is it to make sure less-heralded candidates get their chance to impress?
Or is it about ratings? A chance to give Republicans and Democrats a chance to get plenty of voters to tune in and hear why they are a better idea than the other party. Even when firing away at each other, there’s still more agreement than disagreement, especially on the Democratic side this year.
Probably some of all of the above. The problem is when the purposes start to fight each other. Republicans have benefitted tremendously on the ratings front. At least partially due to Donald Trump, each main debate has drawn more audience than any previous pre-nomination debate in any cycle from either party.
Though the Democratic debates are less frequent, have fewer candidates and often appear scheduled to create the lowest possible audiences, they are still drawing well by historical standards, just not as well as the GOP.
For several months, the big intrigue on the Republican side is who will make the main stage for each debate and who gets relegated to the opening act. While the first junior debate received a solid (if only 1/4 of the main event) viewing of 6 million, ratings have fallen off since.
While Carly Fiorina was able to leverage a strong performance in that first undercard debate to temporarily higher poll ratings and a place on the main stage for the next four debates, none of her peers were similarly able. Chris Christie is the only candidate to survive being demoted, spending only one debate in the first group before having his position restored.
For Rick Perry, Bobby Jindal, Lindsey Graham, and George Pataki, the campaign ended before they could ever step on the main stage. Jim Gilmore was unable to qualify even for the undercard after the first debate. You know the saying about hindsight being 20-20, but it’s hard to imagine any of those candidates thriving right now, regardless of how the debates played out.
With Fiorina being unable to turn her main stage exposure into significant fundraising capability or polling staying power, it’s hard to argue her demotion for Debate #6 is that significant.
2012 Iowa winner Santorum has remained mired in microscopic digits, but it’s hard to make the case his debate position is the cause. Mike Huckabee is finding it just as hard to leverage his 2008 Iowa victory.
He did participate in several first-tier debates and saw his poll standing drop, even though his debate performances were considered more than adequate. If it was all about the debate position, Huckabee should find himself far ahead of Santorum.
John Kasich has qualified for each main debate, often by the narrowest of margins. Is this keeping him in the race? Doubt it. His national poll rating is miserable, with a Real Clear Politics average of 1.8%. This is worse than where he started, when he qualified for the first debate with a number in the 3% range.
Yes, fractions all, well within the margin of error, but either way, national exposure hasn’t helped him, either in terms of top line polling or favorability numbers, where many are still undecided and those who are. He’s net negative or neutral in most national polls asking the question.
Kasich is sticking around because of his position in New Hampshire, where he is very much in the crowded pack of establishment-approved candidates jockeying to finish second behind Trump, first if he should finally collapse the way many experts have long assumed (NOTE: The Donald’s New Hampshire numbers aren’t dropping at all yet).
So I’m having a real hard time arguing the debates are actually doing that much to narrow the field. Polling is. Many candidates who were having a difficult time raising money or building momentum due to poor numbers have dropped out, but not qualifying for a main debate appears a symptom, not a cause. Christie actually began improving after his relegation.
I strongly believe each candidate received a fair hearing. Rand Paul disagrees. He’s decided to boycott the next debate, skipping his opportunity to appear on the undercard. Main event or bust. Bust it is, much like his campaign.
Paul’s difficulties can’t be blamed on the debate structure, as he participated in the first five main events. He’s failed to catch on nationally, in Iowa or in New Hampshire and currently has far less support than his dad had in 2012.
Between Trump, Cruz, and even Bernie Sanders stealing various parts of his thunder, Paul was marginalized and wasn’t likely to stick around into March anyway, even if he didn’t need to worry about winning re-election to his Kentucky Senate seat.
Whether he decided to boycott or not, Paul didn’t have a path. Included in the main event or not, Paul didn’t have a path. Where his exclusion does matter is the debate over ideas. Republicans are not yet anywhere near unified on policy. Aside from a general opposition to increased gun control, and desire to de-fund Planned Parenthood they’re all over the board on most other issues.
Especially on foreign policy/national security issues, a consensus is lacking. Some candidates are far more in favor of unrestricted trade policies. Pentagon funding, boots on the ground, immigration policy, et al are all points of contention. Having Rand Paul’s libertarian perspective would have made an ideological difference.
It doesn’t look like that’s a main purpose of the debate cycle. To begin with, especially when trying to manage the size of each debate, it’s not an easy thing to quantify. With everyone talking about the decision to Trump or not to Trump, this part of the exercise is marginalized.
On the surface, it seems absurd to relegate Paul to his unused undercard podium while Jeb remains in the main event (though at the far end of the stage). Paul is 7th nationally, in Iowa and New Hampshire, while Bush is 6th in each of those measures. The two are virtually tied in Iowa and separated by one point nationally, after Jeb has spent many times more money. But this is more a matter of Jeb getting a break than Rand being screwed.
If Paul thinks he can forward his career more by boycotting than participating, he’s making the right move. If he thinks missing out on the main event in any way prevented him from winning the nomination, he’s fooling himself.
That happened months ago, when he moved toward the mainstream in an insurgent year, and other more compelling candidates stole his thunder. For better or worse, the debates have not yet dramatically impacted the process. They matter, but so does social media, daily news coverage, and the basic competency of each candidate and campaign.
Next to the value of large super PAC money, debates are the most overrated factor (thus far) in the cycle. I’ll watch both GOP debates on Thursday and the Democrats on Sunday because I’m an addict, and I’ll reach some conclusions because I’m human and we can’t resist, but these are but just one in a sea of inputs.
More than anything, debates are great ratings for the networks and great advertising for the parties. Anything else is secondary.