The dubious value of primary debates

Televised candidate debates have become the marquee spectacles of presidential campaigns. By the time Republicans vote in the Florida primary, candidates seeking the party’s presidential nomination will have debated 19 times since May. That’s 30-some hours of live national TV, plus untold hours of recap, recrimination, chatter and miscellaneous noise churned up by the events.

Now, as somebody who deplores the larcenous rates commercial broadcasters normally charge candidates to reach the electorate, I’m glad. The debates constitute a grant of free TV time to hopefuls who might otherwise be priced off the air and out of the race.

But beyond that, since debates seem certain to be a feature of U.S. elections as far as the eye can see, it’s worth asking about how they affect the way elections are conducted and decided.

At the outset, a huge core fact: These debates are TV shows. They aren’t events arranged independently by candidates that the media then decide are newsworthy enough to broadcast. They are classic pseudo-events, in the late Daniel Boorstin’s memorable term — they happen only because they’ll be televised. Accordingly, media organizations far outnumber all other co-sponsors: Of this season’s 19 Republican debates, Wikipedia notes, four co-sponsors were foundations or universities, 12 were political entities, and 34 were media organizations.

That’s not new. The 2008 primaries, when both parties had fierce primary races, had 34 debates, according to a George Washington University website. The co-sponsors: 13 political groups, 14 foundations or universities, and 55 media organizations.

This co-dependency rests on warm and cozy mutual advantage: The candidates get to tee up their messages, the media get a self-replenishing source of quotable utterances. Broadcasters, who nowadays break less and less news, get a cheap and exhilarating chance to once again be a vital source of current affairs programming.

But to what effect? As a fan of this season’s GOP debates, I began wondering whether their overall impact on political discourse was, in partisan terms, absurdly one-sided. For months, hours of television time had been given to aspirants who agreed on little but their conviction that the Obama administration has been a disastrous failure.

There was no room for dissent on that fundamental premise. Debate protocol, obviously enough, enables candidates who are attacked to respond. But if someone egregiously distorted the facts about the incumbent administration, and nobody on stage thought they’d win any friends by correcting the distortion, the false assertion stood unchallenged.

Now, consider the cumulative impact of having dozens of hours of such lopsided discourse, in which the only push-back came from within the closed universe of a single party. It occurred to me that the overall consequence of such an intensely covered primary season, when candidates from one party vied before national audiences to run against a sitting president, might be powerful tailwind for the challengers and against the incumbent. Continue reading “The dubious value of primary debates”