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A Campaign Afflicted With Debate Fatigue

A candidate pile-up at a Republican debate in a piled-up season. (AP).

How well are you keeping up with the presidential debates?

Did you watch the Republicans debate in Florida on Sunday? Did you catch Mike Huckabee and John McCain at the AARP forum in Sioux City Thursday night? Have you set your DVR for Tuesday's Democratic debate in Philadelphia?

How many of the Republican candidates did you watch on C-SPAN at the Values Voters summit in Washington last weekend? Do you have an opinion on whether the Republicans should show up for their Nov. 6 debate in Iowa or just say no -- as most seem to be doing?

Is Anyone Watching?

It's been long long debate-filled wind up to the pitch of primary voting. The first official debate took place back in April, just a few short week's after baseball's opening day. Now in the postseason, not only has the debate novelty faded, but candidates must compete for television viewers with pitchers of a different sort. Of the party-sanctioned debates broadcast on cable networks, viewership has fluctuated between a low of just over 1 million for the Republican debate in Dearborn, Mich. earlier this month and a high of 2.8 million for the Democratic debate in Iowa in August. But the numbers were up again for last Sunday's debate, with 2.3 million viewers tuning in, according to Nielsen projections. That's a respectable tally compared to other similar events, especially given the competition: more than 19 million viewers who watched the Red Sox beat the Indians 11-2 to make it to the World Series. See more ratings here.

Campaign 2008 is clearly suffering from debate fatigue -- long before most voters are truly ready to tune in. What once seemed to be a valuable development -- regular engagement on the part of the candidates -- has spun out of control in this campaign. The proliferation of debates, candidate forums and joint appearances threatens to devalue what should be an important part of the presidential selection process.

That's not to say debates have not played an important role in shaping the races, particularly on the Democratic side. Hillary Clinton's advisers see the debates as a critical building block in their strategy to blunt Barack Obama's early momentum and to establish her readiness to be president.

John Edwards's team sees the debates as having helped draw important contrasts with Clinton. Rudy Giuliani's campaign manager believes the GOP debates have helped showcase Giuliani's record in New York and provide a platform to display passion and toughness. Struggling candidates see the debates as their only opportunity to showcase their talents, given the media's obsessive focus on the top of each field.

But talk to campaign officials privately and they see a system overloaded with events that gobble up valuable time and money for what may be diminishing returns. By now, candidates know their lines -- and their rivals' lines as well.

There are more requests for debates and forums than any campaign can keep up with. One strategist said Friday his candidate turned down eight different debate invitations during a 13-day stretch in late September. They included requests from the California Broadcasters, the Free Masons of California, Colorado State University, as well as more celebrated forums hosted by PBS's Tavis Smiley, Univision and CNN/YouTube.

Some of those may be rescheduled. Both the CNN/YouTube and a Republican forum sponsored by Univision may be held later so that more candidates can participate. But this strategist made the point that it was more important to spend those final weeks of September raising money than flying from debate to debate.

"No matter how much grief we get for blowing off debates, it's worse to have a bad fundraising period," he said. "It is much more important to the long-term strength, viability and perceptions of the campaign than anything we were going to get from any debate."

Another GOP campaign official explained the problem this way: "Debates take a great deal of time and preparation. It's not just 90 minutes of the candidate's time. So much goes into each one to be successful. Each debate takes away fundraising days and days to do retail campaigning in the early states. There is also a great cost to the campaign to get your team to the debate site and conduct preparations in advance."

Campaigns point to the media and the interest groups as the cause of the problem. As one Democrat put it Friday, "There has just been unusually intense interest in this race. Cable stations looking for content drove the process and interest groups decided that sponsoring debates would be seen as a sign of their clout."

Debates have become a valuable tool for branding and promoting television networks, particularly cable networks, and to showcase anchors and correspondents. CNN, Fox and NBC/MSNBC/CNBC all have hosted more than one debate already this year.

Fox has established itself as the unofficial debate host for the Republicans, having hosted three debates, but the executives there have more in mind. One GOP strategist said Fox has proposed five more debates between now and the end of January 2008.

But more than the networks are to blame. Interest in the campaign, particularly among constituencies on the left and right, has helped spike the number of proposals for forums before special interests -- and candidates rarely have the backbone to turn down important constituencies.

Democrats, for example, cannot say no to labor unions, which have hosted debates, forums and candidate interviews. Republicans have an equally difficult time turning down religious and social conservatives, hence the big turnout last weekend. "For a lot of groups it has become almost a way to ratify [their] importance by having candidates appear in front of them," said a top official to one of the Democratic candidates.

Democratic National Committee officials stepped in earlier this year to try to bring some order to the system and succeeded in establishing a series of sanctioned events. The theory was that this would give candidates cover to turn down other requests, but it did not solve the problem, prompting Obama to declare unilaterally that he would not participate in non-sanctioned events.

Republican National Committee officials, to the dismay of the candidates, have done nothing. The result is that Republican candidates now face the prospect of a radio debate on Dec. 3, a televised debate on Dec. 4 and another televised debate later in December -- all in Iowa.

No one has a good solution. One official said some kind of commission could help bring some rationality to the process early in the campaign cycle by establishing a schedule that would guarantee regional diversity and an opportunity for news organizations to act as sponsors that would be backed up by the national committees and a panel of party leaders. But that is far off into the future.

In the meantime, as the campaign moves to its decisive season, there is a risk of debate overload causing more chaos. With the primary-caucus calendar earlier and more compressed than ever, voters face an unprecedented flurry of debates in January. More people will tune in at that point, but will they get more than reruns of previous encounters by candidates thoroughly familiar with one another's answers?

--Dan Balz

By Washington Post editors  |  October 26, 2007; 1:00 PM ET
Categories:  A_Blog , Dan Balz's Take  
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Posted by: simsgt | October 27, 2007 12:00 PM | Report abuse

The choice is simple. If you are a mouth-breathing criminal and love lies, war, torture, stealing, killing, are retarded, hate Americans, children and the troops, then you vote Republican. If you are American, listen to the American people, and CARE about the American people, you vote for another party.

Posted by: camera_eye_1 | October 26, 2007 9:02 PM | Report abuse

This is the most involved the American public has been in the election process in years. We know more about every canidate and at an early period than ever before. This is a good thing.

Posted by: ponti002 | October 26, 2007 8:18 PM | Report abuse

I agree with many of the writers. This entire process is too long. We have been hearing about the 2008 election even before the dust settled on the 2004 election. The so-called front runners took the certification of the 2004 election to be the starting gun for the 2008 race. Enough already!

Debates between potential nominees for over a year before the conventions and at least 8 months before any of the caucuses (sp?) or primaries is just crazy. Like someone mentioned, the candidates aren't likely to change their view between April and next spring. The only 'newsworthy' thing that may happen is that one or the other is liable to stick a foot in their mouth. Maybe that wouldn't be such a bad thing, it might quiet him/her down for a while.

I, for one, have been burned out since before the first debate happened.

Posted by: bob.lasher | October 26, 2007 8:16 PM | Report abuse

Everyone knows the campaign began way too early. The copy-writer hacks and the professional political consultants are a massive block to constitutional democracy today. James Carville and Karl Rove are One, as Romney & Guiliani & Clinton are the Same. Posturing (I'm tough, let's bomb everybody, torture everyone we can lay our hands on) and not making errors is the game.

Is the American voter, who never votes or only does so based on the info picked up from vapid talk radio or TV news, justifiably fatigued from too many debates?

So, Dan Balz you got a problem with your lead: The Fatigue is with the entire political process in America. It seems this will require real anger and rebellion from actual voters to address. The American people deserve better--even if they don't care, are ill-informed, and don't vote! We need leaders and each candidate from both parties has already proven himself/herself a major coward. Well, maybe Obama hasn't.

Posted by: walden1 | October 26, 2007 7:37 PM | Report abuse

I certainly agree with the earlier posters that it's the quality of the debates that's been lagging. The best debate so far was the Democratic debate sponsored by YouTube where real people could ask the questions and CNN moderators held the candidates to task for answering them. This is the debate format of the future -- leave it to real people to ask the questions that matter.

Posted by: jwhamilt | October 26, 2007 6:58 PM | Report abuse

I watched some of the earlier Democratic debates, but now I could care less about them. First of all, they are not debates, but a question and answer show. Moreover, after the debate most of the pundits claim H. Clinton as the alleged "winner" of the "debate" because she did not lose the "debate". What a farce they are. I don't agree that they are a meaningful part of the process, because in 2004 I saw and heard the intellegent and articulate John Kerry clearly beat the arrogant George W. Bush, but lose to W in the election anyway. The entire nominating process this election is entirely too long and what good will it do to have the nominees of both parties known aproximately 9 months before election day. We will be sick of both candidates by then and not want either one as our president. Maybe that is a good thing, if its the media preferred Clinton v. Guilianni race.

Posted by: bringbackimus | October 26, 2007 6:56 PM | Report abuse

WaPoo, this campaign is also infected by yours and the MSMs total blackout of most presidential candidates.

At this point, THEY ARE ALL ELECTABLE, at least all of the Democrats are anyway.

No wonder your circulation is going down the tubes. You actually think that by hyping up Hillary and Rudi we are actually going to vote for them in the primaries over all of the other candidates?


Kucinich and Ron Paul should team up. That would throw a monkey wrench into the military industrial war machine of the fascist imperialist, multinational corporatocracy!

Posted by: kevinschmidt | October 26, 2007 6:14 PM | Report abuse

I wondered when someone was going to recognize that debates at this time are counter productive. There is no reason to have such debates at this stage of the campaigns except to provide something for reporters to comment on and television something to broadcast. Debates should only be conducted near the elections when voters are thinking about the election. No one can win debates at this stage of the campaign because voters won't remember anything they say...unless of course they forget where Poland is or say something else that makes them look foolish.

Posted by: jalexson | October 26, 2007 5:33 PM | Report abuse

Useful forums would be structured as back-and-forth discussions among candidates with minimal participation by the moderators. My question: How do you implement this when so many hopefuls are qualified to participate? I don't see how this can work with more than three or four candidates participating.

On the one hand, we want to keep the debates as open as possible so any candidate with good ideas has a chance to establish his/her qualifications. On the other hand, the proliferation of candidates limits the possibility of useful discussions.

I do think that the debates sponsored by cable networks should be simultaneously presented on broadcast channels through network partnerships.

Posted by: cpaustin408 | October 26, 2007 4:41 PM | Report abuse

Wrong. We need more "REAL" debates. The ones that we have been given are already devalued to zero for the lack of real questions and answers that pander and follow scripts. Americans are fatigued to the point of switching and tuning into The Simpsons by the non-seriousness of the format that only allows for sound-bites and not long essay-like answers that the questions deserve, or they find Simpsons more important... Remember, Colbert is drawing in 10% plus on his Presidential fairy-tale run, so you tell me how serious the average citizen is??? Talk a big game, but....

Posted by: yarbrougharts | October 26, 2007 4:21 PM | Report abuse

The debates are a farce; we learn very little about how these wannabe presidents would really do if elected. They are generally boring and add nothing to the process of selecting a nominee or president. They play to the base, in order to win the primaries; and once nominated they'll play to the middle. How can any of us really discern what these hippocrites are like, except to know that none of them is presidential material. I suppose that's OK, when one considers what we have at present in the White House.

Posted by: Diogenes | October 26, 2007 4:17 PM | Report abuse

I've thought this since spring. Nobody wants to hear these people say the same things over and over and over again, for almost a year.

I don't know why media didn't figure out that whatever they were saying in March, they'd likely been saying the same things in October. They could have saved the travel expenses.

Posted by: p_chuck | October 26, 2007 3:51 PM | Report abuse

You wish, MSM.

However, debate-weary Americans are still keeping their eye on the politicians and the issues which matter. There is a very real sense (however much the MSM would rather ignore it) that the country is up for grabs in the face of so much corruption, criminality and incompetence in its current government.

It will take more than a face-lift to repair that fundamental flaw in the bone-structure, and people are convinced that radical repair is necessary and long-overdue. Get used to it, or fade into irrelevance.

Posted by: wardropper | October 26, 2007 3:38 PM | Report abuse

I know the candidates on both sides are under a terrific amount of pressure regarding their schedules.
However, I don't agree with you that there are "too many" debates.
I do agree that there are too many of these light-weight gatherings sponsored by every group known to man.
However, I have not missed the major debates, well-advertised, on CNN or C-Span or MSNBC held for both party stables of candidates. (I don't watch Fox News.)
There are quite a few candidates on either side; as we approach the Primary Elections (and the caucases and primaries are earlier this coming year), we need to get a look at everyone running.
The major "sanctioned" debates on the big TV news channels have afforded even the minor candidates a chance to get their case before the public.
Look at the impact on Ron Paul's candidacy. He has awakened some truly dispirited non-voters, who may actually take the trouble to register and vote, this time around.
Even if the minor candidates don't make it into the top tier of either party, they can honestly say they've had an impact on the subjects being debated around the nation as we approach election season.
gatesthos has a good point about depth.
I think that depth may have to wait for the general election debates. And that's OK, given the large number of candidates on each side.
I haven't seen them all, by any means. Some have been poorly advertised.
I mark my calendar for the major debates and watch them, usually twice; first, live, then the following re-run, just to make sure I understood what a candidate said.
For people who cannot get, or choose not to have cable, the major TV networks, CBS, NBC and ABC, ought to reach out to CNN & MSNBC to carry the party-sanctioned debates, as a public service.
As for the big debates for the fall election, I think those debates should revolve around the major subjects which concern voters in the fall -- the War on Iraq, etc. (the cost of the war should be its own debate), domestic issues like the economy and jobs, health care, the environment, immigration, etc., with a separate debate focused on each subject.
These major debates should be broadcast by every major news outlet as a public service this time around.
The networks should set aside competition for once and focus on educating the public about the contrast of the candidates' positions.
We might have a better voter turn-out if these measures were in place.
Think about it.

Posted by: Judy-in-TX | October 26, 2007 3:15 PM | Report abuse

Perhaps debates have been a useful tool in the past for gaining information about candidates, but I strongly feel that is no longer true.

The debates that have been aired during this election have done little to serve a voter's knowledge about the candidates.

Each debate's primary function seems to be to enable the various news sources to sensationalize and spin the candidates' and audience responses for ratings or the advancement of a predetermined issue or political goal.

Posted by: Holland3 | October 26, 2007 3:12 PM | Report abuse

Did you watch the Republicans debate in Florida on Sunday?
No, they're all losers and war-mongers.
Did you catch Mike Huckabee and John McCain at the AARP forum in Sioux City Thursday night?
No, they're all losers and war-mongers.
Have you set your DVR for Tuesday's Democratic debate in Philadelphia?
I don't have a DVR or Cable - will watch it at the gym.
How many of the Republican candidates did you watch on C-SPAN at the Values Voters summit in Washington last weekend?
0, they're all losers and war-mongers.
Do you have an opinion on whether the Republicans should show up for their Nov. 6 debate in Iowa or just say no -- as most seem to be doing?
I could care less, they're all losers and war-mongers.
Richardson/Dodd Ticket to Win in 2008.

Posted by: lockmallup | October 26, 2007 3:11 PM | Report abuse

these aren't 'debates'. they are public performances of 'candidates' who have put in more rehearsal time than the cast of any broadway play, who mouth market-tested and pithy comebacks that will garner them a 5-sec spot on the nightly news.

Posted by: mycomment | October 26, 2007 2:52 PM | Report abuse

The Media needs to stop throwing up there So-Called Front Runners in both the Democratic race and the Republican race.
The media needs to start giving all Candidates equal time and stop the BS" between two front runners. The only two Candidates worth listening to are Ron Paul and Dennis Kucinich. the rest are a waste of time.
The Media should be heavily fined for not giving equal time to all the Candidates to be heard in any debate. The useless and worthless Congress should write up a Law that would impose a fine of 10 Million dollars against any network that would not give equal time to all Candidates. Just maybe that would wake these clowns up.

Posted by: lobear00 | October 26, 2007 2:48 PM | Report abuse

Have to agree with the previous commenters. The traditional media loves to congratulate itself on how responsive it is to the democratic impulse by sponsoring what it calls "debates". But the truth is it makes those events so devoid of content and useless that there's no benefit to watching them. Kinda like their so-called "reporting" on "issues".

The best service that tv and newspaper execs could do is to muzzle their moderators.

Posted by: gatesthos | October 26, 2007 2:26 PM | Report abuse

You call these events where Fox lets the GOP bash Hillary a debate? That is not a debate, it is partisan gloat fest. A real debate is between individuals where questions prompt them to make some back-to-back exchanges.

That has happened only once so far and it wasn't even fruitful. These things are worthless and only the Beltway people watch them. People cannot watch a two hour movie, they will watch a two hour debate? Give me a break!

Posted by: AmericanforPeace | October 26, 2007 2:02 PM | Report abuse

Bring on the debates

The problem with the debates are not the quantity, it's the quality. Let's get some in depth 1 on 1 debates going with minimal moderator support.

Posted by: ericbadger | October 26, 2007 1:57 PM | Report abuse

Debates? What debates? We're a broadcast-TV only household, so despite an interest in the process & what the candidates have to say, we have not yet had the chance to watch a debate. My wife was just asking last night when some debates would be on; sorry honey, we're apparently not a target market for their message.

Posted by: bsimon | October 26, 2007 1:31 PM | Report abuse

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