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Too Many Debates?

As the candidates prepare for the debate in Iowa tonight, Karl Rove outlines how the nonstop debates may actually be detrimental to the race:

Each debate kills at least three days: one day (and sometimes two) to prepare, the day of the debate, and the day after, spent dealing with the fallout from the night before. This late in the process – there are 19 days left until Iowa and 26 days until New Hampshire, with Christmas and New Year’s holidays eliminating crucial campaign dates – many candidates might want to chart their own schedules and set their own message priorities. But the debates won’t allow for that.…

Debates transfer power to the media, draining it from the campaigns. Moderators and their news organizations – through questions they frame or select – have more impact than candidates on what’s covered and discussed.

Those are undeniable disadvantages for the campaigns, but what’s the downside for the public? Viewers must be tuning in for something, because the Washington Post reports that the GOP debates have actually been the runaway hit of the season:

The Republican primary debates — 15 full-fledged ones so far, and another Thursday night on Fox News Channel — have turned into one of the fall television season’s surprise hits. A record 7.6 million people tuned in Saturday night, barely three weeks before the first caucus in Iowa….

“There’s hype, there’s drama, there’s uncertainty,” said Mitchell McKinney, a communications professor at the University of Missouri who specializes in political debates. “The debates have become like a reality show, like the next version of ‘Survivor.’”

Each of the debates has produced a newsworthy (or at least sound-bite-worthy) moment or two. In Saturday’s debate, it was Romney offering to bet Perry $10,000 over a disagreement about a passage from Romney’s book. Perry had his own mortifying “oops” moment last month when he couldn’t remember the name of a third federal agency he would dismantle if elected.

Newsworthy, but to whom? Perry’s “oops” moment was an objectively big story – that sort of debate gaffe only happens once a decade. But Romney’s $10,000 bet? Sure, it was a stupid line, but was it really worth two full days of media analysis?

Of course, there will be a “newsworthy” or “sound-bite-worthy” moment from each debate – reporters have to write about something. If nothing important happens, minor issues can be exaggerated and stretched as necessary. Notice these moments never turn out to be ones of substance, but instead revolve around gaffes or drama between candidates. And that’s not good for the candidates or for the public.



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