A Campaign Afflicted With Debate Fatigue
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?
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