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Crowded GOP Debate Schedule Grows as Ratings Rise

Crowded GOP Debate Schedule Grows as Ratings Rise

By Erin McPike - November 8, 2011


Just when it seemed like the moaning and groaning in Washington about the overstuffed presidential debate calendar was at its height last month, ABC, CNN and Fox News announced they were adding a few more. They had a reason for that; actually, they had millions of reasons.

Voters -- or, specifically, viewers.

Of course, the more accurate term might be "ratings," and in TV, higher ratings translate ultimately into more dollars. As the campaigns well know, in this pre-primary election season, ratings for the debates are up. And the ups and downs of the GOP primary polls indicate they’re having an impact.

There is no denying that debates can weed out those not skilled enough to survive. Candidates grumble about the occasional “gotcha questions” from the moderators that force them to spend more of their precious time in preparation rather than fundraising; their lawyers support each other when bargaining with the networks to keep the debates shorter. And strategists who hope to pack more retail politicking into the early states are griping that the jammed debate schedule is cramping their style. Nevertheless, the spike in debate viewership suggests that voters like them, and the news they create is shaping the race.

Take the CNN forum in Las Vegas on Oct. 18, which attracted some 5.5 million viewers. As the news channel’s Washington bureau chief, Sam Feist, put it, “We made ‘The Biggest Loser’ the biggest loser.” (That NBC show averaged 5.2 million viewers in the 8 o’clock hour that night, meaning the cable station edged out the major broadcast network in prime time. For comparison, shows on ABC, CBS and Fox each brought in more than 10 million viewers at the same hour, according to Nielsen ratings data.)

Feist also pointed out that the ratings are going up for debates as the election nears.

A Fox News debate in May drew 3.3 million viewers; in August, just prior to the Iowa Straw Poll, the network’s second debate of the season attracted 5.1 million; and its third in September jumped again to 6.1 million. CNN boasted 3.2 million viewers for a June debate, followed by 3.6 million in September, and then improved upon that by nearly 2 million for the Las Vegas debate last month. NBC reached 5.4 million in September, and its sister cable network CNBC will host the outlet’s second debate on Wednesday (at 8 p.m. from Rochester, Mich.). Compared to the primary debates four years ago, ratings are higher across the board.

Veteran Republican strategist Rob Collins called the numbers impressive, and he believes that the rise signals increasing Republican interest and enthusiasm for next year’s election. But, he said, “I get that debates are the high school proms of the primary that campaigns complain about until they get picked for homecoming king. It's the one night that an average campaign can be special, and possibly take off. I would embrace the debates and use them to fuel the campaign's money and grass-roots efforts.”

Herman Cain has done that and risen to unlikely front-runner status as a result. Michele Bachmann used the June debate to announce her candidacy, landing her the bulk of the race’s attention this summer -- and a later win at the Ames Straw Poll, along with a temporary polling lead. Ron Paul stood out in the GOP debates four years ago and attracted a wide donor base that he enjoys again this cycle.

Consequently, a prominent conservative activist in Washington said, “hearing people complain about the debates is increasingly tiresome. I think it’s made for a more entertaining, more fluid race with a greater exchange of ideas.”

Political analyst Charlie Cook agreed. “Having fallen asleep during so many debates, I have never been a big fan of them, but this year's have actually been interesting and entertaining,” he said. “The debates have really defined this campaign and the eclectic group of candidates has made them kind of fun. Given that virtually 30-second ads generally contain no useful information, at least this year's debates have been more useful, once you get past the shameless self-promotion aspect of the sponsoring news organizations.”

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Erin McPike is a national political reporter for RealClearPolitics. She can be reached at emcpike@realclearpolitics.com. Follow her on Twitter @ErinMcPike.

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