It’s a Friday afternoon in early February, I’m at CNN’s headquarters in Washington, D.C., and I have just made the mistake of telling bureau chief Sam Feist, the man who was personally responsible for producing six of this cycle’s 19 Republican debates, and who is right now, as we speak, preparing for his seventh, which is scheduled to take place tonight in Arizona, that “some people” think these incessant televised extravaganzas have transformed the GOP nominating contest into a reality show of sorts—or, as I indelicately put it, “Survivor for political junkies.”
“Do they even watch the debates!” Feist shouts. He leaps from his chair. “Let me see if I can find them. I have a notebook for every one.”
Feist is familiar, of course, with the objections that have been leveled against the 2012 debates lately. Karl Rove has complained that they “have nearly crippled campaigns.” John McCain has gone further; “We’ve got to stop the debates!” he recently barked. And even Chris Wallace, the FOX News anchor, has joined the down-with-debates brigade, despite having moderated four of the things himself. “It is ridiculous how many debates there have been,” Wallace said late last month, adding that at this point people only tune in “to see if there’s going to be a wreck.”
Again, Feist is aware of the backlash. He just thinks it’s wrong.
“Here they are!” Feist says as he settles back into his seat. “The actual cards that Wolf Blitzer had in hand for our Nov. 22 debate.” He spreads them on the table, like relics. “Most of the people who say, ‘Oh, there have been too many debates’ have a vested interest in a particular outcome,” he declares. “So let’s take a look, while you’re here.” Feist shuffles the deck. “OK: a question about whether we need to extend the investigative powers under the Patriot Act. Pretty serious and important question.” He flips to the next card. “‘Do you think we should expand the drone-strike campaign in Pakistan or not?’ Again, pretty serious question.” Feist pauses and smiles, convinced that he has convinced me.
“I defy anybody to look at these,” he says, “and tell me it is not healthy to hear the presidential candidates answer them.”
At which point I ask the obvious follow-up: is it also healthy to hear Newt Gingrich answer a question about whether he lobbied his second wife for an open marriage while cheating on her with the woman who later became his third, as viewers did at the start of the CNN debate in Charleston?
Before Feist can reply, his political director, Mark Preston, looks up from his BlackBerry. “That was different,” Preston says. “I mean, what if we hadn’t asked that question? It was the subject on TV. You couldn’t escape it.”
Until recently, debating whether debates are the “highest form of political journalism,” which is Feist’s position, or a glorified “car race,” which is Wallace’s, was kind of pointless. That’s because they’ve rarely influenced any actual election results, despite the reliably frantic coverage. But 2012 has been different: the whole primary contest--who’s up, who’s down, who’s up again--seems to pivot every time the candidates congregate beneath the klieg lights. Perry Has “Oops” Moment, Plummets to Fourth in Polls; Gingrich Lacerates John King, Claws Out Comeback in South Carolina. Experts argue about which of these turning points were caused by a notable debate moment and which simply coincided with one. But even former skeptics are convinced that debates have been a far bigger factor this cycle than ever before. “I admit that I thought they wouldn’t matter much,” says Dartmouth’s Brendan Nyhan, who chided “the media” as recently as Jan. 10 for “devoting too much attention” to the debates. “But now it’s clear that 2012 has set a new precedent.”
The question--with tonight’s CNN debate from Mesa, Ariz. looming--is why. Why have the 2012 primary debates have eliminated some candidates and elevated others, repeatedly, even though nothing of the sort happened in 2008 or 2004? And can they shift the balance of power yet again? After consulting with a brain trust of academics, operatives, and media professionals, my sense is that McCain & Co. are right that the past nine months of debates have unfolded more like a reality show than a policy seminar; Tim Pawlenty’s failure to say the word “Obameycare,” for example, likely had a larger effect on the polls than any of Wolf Blitzer’s questions about Pakistan, however serious they were. But what the whiners don’t realize, and what the Feists of the world seem to get, is that a season of Survivor was exactly what this particular GOP needed, at this particular moment, before it could close ranks behind a candidate credible enough to challenge Barack Obama in the fall.
In fact, I’d argue that the reality-TV-ification of the Republican primary debates couldn’t have been avoided.
From the start of the 2012 cycle, nearly a dozen different factors have conspired to make the debates far more influential than anyone anticipated. Televised clashes between the candidates don’t matter a whole lot in the general election, largely because they tend to air too late to change most people’s minds. But primary debates have a far greater shot at shaking up the contest. “In a primary, voters don’t start out with any clear cues about who they should support,” says GWU’s John Sides. “So in some sense their preferences are more malleable, which enlarges the role debates can play.” That’s especially true when the field is as decentralized as this one; by refusing to coalesce around Romney the way they coalesced around Obama and Clinton in 2008, primary voters have made an historically unstable climate downright volatile. As Sides puts it, “without one or two real heavyweights sucking up all the oxygen, there’s more potential for folks to make a run in the polls and get some attention.”
The media, and the campaigns themselves, have ensured that this potential doesn’t go unfulfilled. The reason we’ve had 19 debates that the press and the pols basically agree that maximizing the number of opportunities for small-screen “moments” is in both sides’ best interest. Viewership has increased since 2008--this cycle’s highest-rated debate attracted 7.63 million viewers, or 270,000 more than the most-watched Republican debate of four years ago--and the ratings have been growing steadily since the start of the cycle. For television networks, that translates to more ad money, which helps defray the astronomical cost of covering a 24/7 campaign, plus greater reach and prestige for the brand, which may be even more important in the long run. “Debates are very expensive to produce, so it’s hard to argue that we make a profit on this,” says Feist. “It’s a broader strategy. We want to be the place where the presidential election plays out, where people go to watch it unfold. Having debates is a big part of that.” The candidates, meanwhile, are obsessed with conveying their message and attacking their rivals as cheaply as possible. Debates do the trick. “They’re not just earned media,” says former Michele Bachmann campaign manager Keith Nahigian, referring to coverage the campaign doesn’t have to pay for. “They’re unfiltered earned media, which is very, very unusual at this level of exposure. At each debate, you’re talking anywhere from 12 to 17 minutes of unfiltered time, nationally. When everyone’s dropping millions of dollars on television ads, that’s precious stuff.”
More debates doesn’t necessarily mean more influential debates. But it does mean more confrontations between the candidates... which means more “newsworthy” moments... which means more material for our insatiable, 24-second news cycle... which means an ever more debate-heavy newshole. In the last three months of 2007, for example, the press devoted 16 percent of its coverage to the presidential contest, according to the Project for Excellence in Journalism; last year, that number rose to 20 percent. “Debates are uniquely interesting to journalists because they’re relatively spontaneous, and there aren’t many opportunities for spontaneity in politics anymore,” says Sides. “So they can drive the news cycle in a way that few other events can.” The result is that without a Democratic primary to distract them--or to distract FOX, their preferred news source--more Republican voters are seeing more of the debates, more directly, than ever before. Every video clip is enlarged; every soundbite is amplified.
Several of the Republican candidates sensed early on that debates would have greater sway this cycle, and they calibrated their campaigns accordingly: deemphasize fundraising, organization, and retail politicking, at least at first, and focus on winning over debate audiences instead. This decision is directly responsible for a lot of 2012’s debate-related volatility. When there’s no real frontrunner and debates are more dominant than ever, charismatic performers such as Herman Cain and Michele Bachmann can zip to the top of the national polls, seemingly overnight. But without any traditional campaign infrastructure, they wind up being ill-equipped to transform a sudden surge of attention into actual votes, and the impatient news industry is soon searching for the next big story to tweet about.
Newt Gingrich is a perfect example. In early December, the former speaker sat down with NEWSWEEK for cover story titled “Inside Newt’s Stunning Comeback.” Speaking to Peter Boyer, he attributed much of his recent resurrection to his debate performances, which he recreated in minute, almost obsessive detail: how he was “patient enough to let [his rivals] come into [his] space”; how “with every debate, I was gaining ground, because I was the only guy who refused to be petty”; how he “took on John Harris of Politico, who was trying to get... all of us to fight... and I said, ‘look, we’re here to defeat Obamacare,’ and the place went nuts”; and so on. Of course, shortly after Gingrich spoke to NEWSWEEK, he was hit with several million dollars of SuperPAC attack ads in Iowa and wound up losing the state because he didn’t have the money or organization to fight back--a pattern that repeated itself in January, when Newt’s debating skills helped him win South Carolina but couldn’t save him from a second Super PAC onslaught ten days later in Florida.
The final piece of the 2012 debate puzzle--after the volatile, frontrunner-free field; the mindboggling number of events; the lack of a competing Democratic primary; the media’s vast appetite for unscripted, viral-video moments; and the disorganized but TV-ready candidates--is the voters themselves. One of the main things I noticed about the Republicans I met on the trail over the last few months was that they were precisely the kind of people who WOULD bounce around from one candidate to the next, depending on the latest debate developments. They resented the GOP establishment; they were deeply determined to make their “own decision” about whom to support; and they seemed to believe, almost to a person, that President Obama was an inarticulate dolt who wouldn’t be able to complete a single sentence without the help of his trusty Teleprompter. So it’s no wonder they were so sensitive to everything that happened on the debate stage: where else could they observe, free from all those meddling Beltway bigwigs, which contestants had the skills to verbally “tear Obama’s butt up,” as a Vietnam vet named Joseph Wilson put it to me in Beaufort, S.C. last month?
Nahigian’s vocabulary isn’t quite as salty, but he’s basically saying the same thing. “It’s very hard to tell, after a 30-second Super PAC ad, what makes a candidate tick,” he explains. “These debates might be the purest form of democracy we have left.”
Pure democracy? It’s a stretch. But as I write in this week’s print magazine, by helping to winnow the GOP field, reality-show-style, the 2012 debates may end up advancing a cause that’s nearly as critical for Republicans right now: uniting their divided party around a credible nominee.
That process is likely to continue on stage in Mesa tonight--or, more accurately, via CNN in Michigan, where Republicans voters are far more evenly split over which candidate to support in the Feb. 28 primary than their Arizona counterparts, which means they are far more likely to influence the media narrative, and therefore the polls, heading into Super Tuesday. The latest FiveThirtyEight forecast, which is “formulated from an average of recent surveys, with adjustments made to account for a polling firm’s accuracy, freshness of a poll and each candidate’s momentum,” gives Santorum a 51 percent chance of winning the Great Lakes State primary--and Romney a 49 percent chance. The contest couldn’t be closer. And with recent surveys showing that nearly 40 percent of Michiganders are still willing to change their minds, a single misstep (or rhetorical home run) could very well upend the polls yet again, propelling either Romney or Santorum into a commanding lead just as the contest goes national--and just as they run out of opportunities for this kind of cheap, unfiltered access to so many voters. (The candidates have not agreed to any additional debates.)
Back at CNN headquarters, I decide to ask Sam Feist one last question before I turn off my tape recorder. “Don’t you think,” I say, “that most people have gotten debate fatigue by now?”“It’s the opposite,” Feist replies. “The most recent debates have been the highest rated. There’s no fatigue at all.”So you aren’t worried, heading into Arizona, that people are going to be tired of this?“No,” he says. “Not at all. Debates are fascinating television. Viewers have already made it clear that they’re interested in this kind of content.”Thank goodness for that, I think. After all, we still have three more contestants to vote off the island.