The unusual number of Republican presidential candidate debates
so far has, in effect, served as the first primary of the 2012 cycle. The
number of debates has grown since 1960 when the televised debate
between GOP nominee Richard Nixon faced Democratic nominee John
F. Kennedy. The impact of television was decisive that year inasmuch as
polls indicate that the majority of those voters who heard the debate on
radio thought that Nixon had won, but more of those who saw the debate
on television thought Kennedy had won.
Since that time, the number of debates has increased significantly, and
soon became vital part of the nomination process itself. This year, with
only a contest on the GOP side, there have been an astonishing number
of debates, and their audiences beyond the live attendees (via radio, TV,
and podcasts) have grown to significant numbers.
This immediate and repeated exposure has clearly influenced opinion
polls (perhaps most dramatically last week when Texas Governor Rick
Perry had a brief memory lapse during a debate in Michigan). This
became the biggest national political story, even eclipsing the non-debate
crisis in the campaign of Herman Cain following sexual harassment
allegations against him.
It is true that no actual votes are cast in the "debates primary," but it is
now inescapable that by means of the polls, and the seemingly endless print
and broadcast analyses of the debates, there is an equivalent primary/
caucus process provided by the series of debates that precede Iowa and
With the great number of these pre-primary debates that have occurred
(and will yet occur) in 2011, this "debates primary" now becomes an
institutional part of the presidential election cycle.
When Governor Perry, after his early poor performance in the first debates
he participated in, said he was not going to participate in further debates,
there was such a complaint in the media that he had to reverse himself.
Some have suggested that debating skills are not intrinsic to becoming a
good president. But now this point is moot, since it is an inevitable part of
the nominating and final election process.
Even as late as the first quarter of the 20th century, presidential candidates
did not campaign very much across the country. Part of the reason was that
the communications and transportation technology did not allow for it. The
airplane, radio, television and internet revolutions have each since enabled
candidates and nominees to reach more and more voters easily and rapidly.
The rise of the presidential primary and caucus in the past 50 years created
a more immediate and personal style of campaigning as presidential aspirants
were required to visit more individual states and, in the case of Iowa, New
Hampshire, and other smaller states, to perform so-called "retail
campaigning," that is, meet with individual and small groups of voters. A
recent variation of this, the town meeting format, has become a popular
campaign technique, and has required candidates to display certain skills
hitherto not part of presidential campaigns.
Now we have the debate format, and the skills it requires, to be a central, vital
and most important early component of a presidential candidate seeking his or
her party's nomination. But, while political advertising, straw polls, town
meetings and talk show appearances are still important parts of any campaign,
the debate cycle has emerged as a much more dispositive part of the presidential
campaign before the actual primaries and caucuses take place. In fact, these
debates have become the first actual primary, influencing large numbers of
voters before any votes are cast, reducing the number of candidates to only the
This also accounts for the standings of former Governor Romney and former
Speaker Gingrich at the top of current polls to date in 2011. Each of them has,
during the debates so far, shown the most skill, knowledge of the issues and
stage presence to be considered the "winners" of the debates, and in the case
of Mr. Gingrich, enabled him to recover dramatically from earlier campaign
mistakes and controversies.
Political figures who want to be president of the United States in the future,
and their campaign strategists, will have to take the "debates primary" into
consideration before deciding to step up to the national stage.
Copyright (c) 2011 by Barry Casselman
All rights reserved.