“The debates have been much more consequential this year than in the past for two reasons,” said Republican pollster Whit Ayres. “The only well-known candidate — Romney — has significant pockets of resistance in the party. And the alternatives to Romney, other than [former House speaker Newt] Gingrich ■ are all relatively unknown nationally.”
Not everyone agrees that the debates have greatly influenced the GOP race. They argue that the contest is so fluid that, by the time the primaries and caucuses begin, the debates may be remembered more for shaping the commentary than for influencing the ultimate outcome.
Mike Murphy, a longtime GOP strategist, remains skeptical. “They’ve been huge in the echo chamber and have made the early (and overrated) national polling gyrate, but meaningful impact in Iowa, New Hampshire and South Carolina is not yet known.”
Jim Dyke, a GOP strategist in South Carolina, also isn’t convinced.
“They are informative and can identify possible themes, candidate character traits and issue depth, but are typically not determinative,” he said. “Mostly, they develop perceptions that campaigns will work to reinforce or dismiss, and it’s how or whether campaigns address issues that can be most informative.”
Perry isn’t the only candidate whose fortunes have been affected by the debates. Former Minnesota governor Tim Pawlenty’s candidacy never recovered after he missed an opportunity to challenge Romney at a forum in New Hampshire. That same night, Bachmann (Minn.) used her first debate to light up the stage and boost her standing. She used a second debate a month later to propel her to a victory in the Iowa straw poll.
Businessman Herman Cain has seized on the opportunities provided by the exchanges to raise his profile, projecting an upbeat personality with a tax plan whose “9-9-9” simplicity has won him early support and produced the latest surge in the polls.
Gingrich (Ga.), whose campaign started with a series of major missteps, has used the exchanges to repair some of the damage. Rep. Ron Paul (Tex.) has used them to draw contrasts with others, particularly on foreign policy. Former senator Rick Santorum (Pa.) and former Utah governor Jon Huntsman Jr., generally relegated to the far reaches of the stage, nonetheless have tried to find weaknesses in their rivals in the hope of moving up.
The competition to stage debates is almost as intense as the contest among the candidates. Tuesday’s forum will be held by CNN, and it will be the cable network’s third debate. Fox News also has held three exchanges. NBC News and Politico co-sponsored a debate at the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library in Simi Valley, Calif. Last week’s New Hampshire forum was held by The Washington Post and Bloomberg News. [For the record, I was part of the team that helped plan it.]
With their often-glitzy sets, vocal audiences and introductions that sometimes sound straight from the sporting world, the debates are infotainment for the politically interested. They have become a form of reality TV, competitions familiar to many Americans. That may explain why they have been such big draws. The Pew Research Center reported Monday that 36 percent of Republicans said they had watched at least one debate.
“Americans are used to watching competitions involving large numbers of contestants and watching the fields get whittled down,” said Tom Rath, a GOP strategist and Romney adviser based in New Hampshire. “The debates have made the campaign accessible to the public in an understandable format much earlier and easier than ever before.”