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Too Many Debates, Too Little Impact

By Peter Brown

Although politicians promising more than they can deliver often flout the laws of economics, the 2008 presidential campaign is a priceless illustration of how supply and demand can devalue televised debates.

Simply put the campaign's early start and the media's natural inclination to seek confrontation through face-to-face contact among candidates has led to an imbalance of too many debates and too few viewers.

The result: the debates so far have not had all that much impact on the Republican and Democratic nomination races.

The myriad debates are being aired on cable news channels, which have relatively small audiences and are largely made up of political junkies, many of whom have already picked a presidential candidate.

It is the great mass of voters - only some of whom will actually vote in the primaries - whom the candidates need to reach. The large number of debates means that each is proportionately less important, and unlikely to produce the kind of drama that could make or break a candidate.

Common sense argues that the debates held weeks before the primary voting actually begins will be much more influential than those held six or nine months before the opening Iowa caucuses, next Jan. 14.

Moreover, with so many different formats and audiences to choose from, candidates don't seem the least bit hesitant to tell the cable networks sponsoring individual debates to take a hike if they don't like the event's format, questioners or date.

Of course, this changed environment regarding debates between candidates for the party nominations does not signal a declining importance of the general election debates that will come in the fall of 2008 between the major party nominees.

Those fall, 2008 debates will remain major events because they occur when most voters - not just the political junkies - will be paying attention to an election that will then be just weeks away.

The declining importance of the debates so far reflects a fractured media landscape. Multiple cable networks, each with relatively small and well-defined demographic viewer profiles, can't deliver the mass audiences that were more common when there were a limited number of debates.

Candidates know this and behave accordingly.

After all, you have candidates turning down nationally televised forums that in the past would have been de rigueur for anyone seriously competing for the presidential nominations. Debates, after all, can be free television commercials for candidates, and often provide video snippets that can show up on news programs or in late night comedy monologues.

For example, two of the leading Republican candidates - former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani and former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney -- are saying no to a CNN-televised debate in mid-September in Florida, one of the key early primary states.

And, Fred Thompson, another leading, if not formally declared GOP contender, has already passed up opportunities to take part in televised debates. The smart money says that if Romney and Giuliani don't do that CNN debate, Fred won't either.

The official complaint with that debate is that the questions come via You Tube and it is an undignified way to question a future president.

Translation: the leaders in the race don't want to get in a situation where the questions come from unknown people, not journalists or even necessarily Republican voters, whose motive might not be to gain insight about the candidates, but to embarrass them.

And Republicans certainly aren't the only ones turning down nationally televised debates.

Virtually all the Democratic candidates have said they will not participate in a debate that was to be hosted by the Congressional Black Caucus and Fox News, which would televise it.

The Democratic candidates decided to skip that debate after liberal activists - who disdain Fox as the devil incarnate - pressured them on the grounds that the network has a Republican bias.

In the old days, no candidate would give up a chance for national television exposure, but in this campaign those opportunities come along so often, saying no has little real downside.

Peter A. Brown is assistant director of the Quinnipiac University Polling Institute. He can be reached at

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