Why the Debates Will Determine the 2016 GOP Nominee

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Tim Pawlenty is barely an asterisk in presidential political lore, but what happened to his brief and undistinguished 2012 campaign signified a tectonic shift in contemporary campaigning.

By conventional wisdom, Pawlenty did everything right. He invaded my home state of Iowa with a purpose, armed with high name ID as a border state governor who was a finalist to be John McCain’s running mate in 2008. Pawlenty spent so much time here before anyone else was organized that he could’ve qualified for residency. He also bought up a lot of top-tier talent to build an impressive organization.

Yet at the crucial Iowa Straw Poll, all that organization could deliver was a distant and disappointing third-place finish. Just 48 hours later he was out of the race. Pawlenty was guilty of playing a conventional ground game in what had become an air war era. His descent from rising star to irrelevancy is a cautionary tale for candidates in 2016 and beyond.

Voters are changing, due in part to the hectic nature of our lives as well as the convenience of modern technology.

Pawlenty’s goose in Iowa was actually cooked in a New Hampshire primary debate before that fateful straw poll. Pawlenty had gone on the Sunday morning shows the previous day and attacked frontrunner Mitt Romney for being the inspiration for “Obamneycare.” But afterward, when the debate moderator offered Pawlenty the chance to confront Romney directly with his own zinger, he showed all the courage of the cowardly lion.

The next day I hosted a focus group in Iowa of uncommitted caucus conservatives, and when Pawlenty’s name came up he was hammered by man and woman alike for his wimpiness. Even though the debate was in New Hampshire, every Iowan there had either watched it live or saw the clip of Pawlenty’s self-emasculation via social media. Their disdain for Pawlenty’s punt foreshadowed the larger rejection by thousands of Iowans still to come.

Welcome to our brave, new world. The good news is that there’s more media scrutiny of our politicians than ever before. The bad news is that there’s more media scrutiny of our politicians than ever before.

Gone are the days of waiting for Walter Cronkite to give us the news, as well as the 24-hour cable news cycle. Now the news cycle is 24 minutes every half-hour, minus commercials. The blogosphere makes it so there’s nothing we don’t already know by the time it makes it to the airwaves. There is simply no way to keep up with all the content out there, even if we wanted to.

For example, Fox News owns the top 14 spots in the cable news rankings. Yet the total viewership of their prime-time weekday lineup isn’t even 2 percent of the total popular vote in the 2012 presidential election.

Furthermore, voters are busier than ever before. Many of us have kids, and they are also busier than ever before. Today’s technology puts the world at our fingertips, which also means we rarely get a break from it.

As a result, voters don’t have the time to read every article here at RealClearPolitics, listen to every radio show I broadcast, or watch every cable news show every night. However, when there is a singular event -- like a debate -- we can carve out the time for that. And then social media allows us to make those events go viral for days and weeks on end -- thus amplifying their impact.

This is why I believe it’s not money, organization, or any other traditional metric that’s going to determine the 2016 GOP presidential nomination. It’s going to be the debates. Just like it was the last time.

In 2012 the only candidate who had the base, money, and organization to compete with Romney nationally was Texas Gov. Rick Perry, but he was done in by the debates. Not only did Romney best him head-to-head, but Perry told a Tea Party debate crowd in Florida that if they didn’t want to pay for the college tuition of illegals “they don’t have a heart.” Once that clip went public Perry needed to prepare his concession speech.

The next time the debates changed the race was in South Carolina, when Newt Gingrich confronted two different debate moderators who questioned him about his past indiscretions, and subsequently grabbed the win in that traditionally crucial primary. However, Romney regrouped and ambushed Gingrich in the Florida primary debate to change the momentum there. After that Gingrich was basically finished.

Santorum was up next, except there weren’t any more debates after Feb. 23. For an under-funded candidate like Santorum -- who couldn’t match Romney on-air -- that was a severe disadvantage. The lack of debates at that juncture meant Santorum never had the chance to land a body blow, let alone a kill shot on Romney, who would eventually outlast him and capture the nomination.

With that said, why have the debates become so important?

For the same reason football dominates our sports viewing habits. Your favorite baseball team demands six nights a week, and you don’t have time for that. But your favorite football team only plays one game a week, so that game becomes an event you can plan for and fit conveniently into your schedule.

Debates provide a similar value to voters in a crowded field. It might be the only chance voters get to see all of the contestants together on a stage, no longer shielded by their consultants, where they can compare them directly to one another. Throw in the fact that if something memorable happens in that setting it leads the news the next day, goes viral on social media, and months’ worth of polling can be turned on a dime. It all makes one such moment more impactful than spending millions of dollars on 30- and 60-second ads.

In fact, early states like Iowa and South Carolina lack the major media markets that could allow you to buy elections elsewhere simply by bombarding the airwaves. That bolsters the importance of making a lasting and good impression in the debates. And if you win Iowa and South Carolina, you win the nomination: Republicans have always nominated someone who’s won two of the first three early states (Iowa, New Hampshire, and South Carolina).

In sports and politics you need to be great when it matters most. If a quarterback throws for 500 yards and nine touchdowns in a midseason game but is an epic fail in the Super Bowl, nobody remembers what happened during the regular season. Similarly, being out front in the polls right now may be nice. But if you don’t convince voters you’re the leader they’re looking for, while they’re watching you on a national stage alongside your competitors, you’re through.

Just ask Tim Pawlenty. 

Steve Deace is a nationally syndicated talk show host and the author of the new book “Rules for Patriots: How Conservatives Can Win Again.” You can “like” him on Facebook or follow him on Twitter @SteveDeaceShow.

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