Like the best reality TV shows, it has all the elements.
There’s the unscripted dialogue, frequent verbal clashes and the occasional mortifying moment to give viewers something to talk about the next day. There’s the diverse and occasionally wacky cast of characters — the would-be front-runner (Mitt Romney), the plain-talkin’ challenger (Rick Perry), the come-from-behind guy (Newt Gingrich), the feisty grandpa (Ron Paul), and the plucky female contender (Michele Bachmann). There are underdog figures, too (Rick Santorum and Jon Huntsman), who never seem to get the same amount of airtime as the bigger stars.
Republican presidential candidates gathered in D.C. on Tuesday night for a debate centered on national security. (Nov. 22)
GOP presidential candidates seek center stage
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. The five most popular debates in recent weeks have attracted an average of 5.6 million viewers, a figure that would rank them as the most popular series on cable after pro-football games, and just behind middle-ranked sitcoms such as “Parks and Recreation” on the broadcast networks.
Surely, viewers of all political persuasions are drawn by the consequential nature of the discussion — taxes, the economic crisis, stances on foreign policy — and by a desire to learn who might be best qualified to challenge for the presidency next fall. But this year’s debate-a-thon, which will surely surpass the record of 21 held by Republicans during the 2007-08 cycle, has some bonus features as well.
“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. Herman Cain, now gone, is likely to be most remembered for repeatedly invoking his “9-9-9” plan during the debates. Or possibly for repeatedly calling CNN moderator Wolf Blitzer “Blitz” during one of his answers.
Even audience reactions have been noteworthy, such as the booing that followed a gay soldier’s question in September about whether the candidates would reinstate the military’s “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy.
All of it seems to matter; the debates have been critical in shifting public perceptions of the candidates, leading to an unsettled and suspenseful race — which, of course, amplifies the stakes for the next debate.
Perry’s candidacy ran into big trouble with his debate brain freeze. Gingrich’s rise from near-dead to the top of the polls in recent weeks is largely credited to his debate performances. The fallout from Romney’s proposed bet with Perry last week still isn’t clear, but it couldn’t have helped; Huntsman and Bachmann’s campaigns jumped on it as a sign that Romney is out of touch with average Americans, as did the Democratic National Committee.