Too Many Republican Debates

Patricio Navia

Buenos Aires Herald, February 28, 2012


The excessive number of Republican presidential debates has hurt that party’s chances of denying President Barack Obama a second term. Public interest in the debates has dwindled. To sway the small minority of conservatives and rightwing zealots who continue paying attention, Republican presidential hopefuls have taken ever more radical positions.  The more radical the positions Republican aspirants adopt, the more moderates are discouraged from considering the possibility of giving the presidency to a Republican.


The Republican campaign got to an early start immediately after the 2010 midterm election. As Republicans retook control of the House and made gains in the Senate and in state governments, a number of Republican aspirants signaled they would enter the race. Mitt Romney, who had already tried in 2008—but was defeated by John McCain—announced his intentions very early. Several other Republicans followed suit, hoping to secure the support of the Tea Party, the active, vocal and enthusiastic conservative movement opposed to big government that had revolutionized the party. Because they were seen as a deciding voting bloc in the primaries, most Republican hopefuls thought they needed Tea Party support to secure the nomination.


The first Republican presidential debate was held on May 5 of 2011, in South Carolina. Out of the four participants, only Rick Santorum remains in the race today. Mitt Romney first participated in the second debate, on June 13th in New Hampshire. That was the first time that the four remaining candidates today were all present in a debate. A third debate on August 11 had 8 presidential candidates. Traditionally, the campaign season begins after the long labor-day weekend in early September. Thus, most informal counts of Republican presidential debates consider the September 5th debate in South Carolina as the first of the 23 Republican presidential debates held so far. Not all debates have been equally important or attended by all candidates. For example, Romney has participated in 19 of the 23 debates held since September. The debate with the largest number of candidates was on September 22nd in Florida, with 9 candidates participating. The format of the debates has also changed, with some allowing likely voters to ask questions and others having more restrictions on how much the candidates could actually talk to each other.


The recurrence of the debates increased as the primary season neared.  Four debates were held in September, 2 in October, 5 in November and 4 in December. January of 2012 set a record with 7 debates.  Apparently, the large number of Republican presidential debates generated a debate overload. Ratings fell and the effect of debates was no longer valued as highly by candidates. In February, only one debate was held. Two previously scheduled debates for March 1st and 5th have recently been cancelled.


Normally, debates are opportunities for candidates to stress their points and present their ideas. However, when the number of candidates is large, there is very limited time to contrast ideas and discuss issues. As a result, candidates find themselves pressed to oversimplify their position and caricature their opponents’ views. Debates degenerate into a contest of sound bites and catch phrases that fail to capture the complexity of the issues discussed. As they convey very little useful information to voters, moderates and undecided voters stop watching. Knowing the increase partisanship of the audience, candidates polarize their discourse to cater to that decreasing number of people who continue to pay attention. In the end, candidates gain little but risk a lot in participating in the debates. Their statements will hardly win them any votes, but if they make mistakes, their declarations become a potential liability.  Moreover, because whoever wins the nomination will have to move to the center in the general campaign, the Republican debates are ammunition for Barack Obama to use against the Republican candidate when the campaign becomes about moderation and pragmatism. While the President has spent his time positioning himself as a moderate, Republicans hopefuls have been forced to look very conservative in their presidential debates.


The Republican campaign has yet to produce a nominee. Mitt Romney remains as the overwhelming favorite to clinch the nomination. A loss against Santorum in Michigan today would certainly damage him. Yet, even if he wins in Michigan, Santorum has an uphill battle in the coming weeks. In the end, all bets are still on Romney. Though the longer it takes him to secure the nomination, the weaker Romney will be against Obama.  In part, his weaknesses will also be worsened by all the statements that Romney has made in the Republican presidential primary debates as he has pursued the conservative vote.  He might need to reassure conservatives before he can secure the nomination, but the more political capital he spends on winning over the conservative vote in presidential debates, the more difficult it will be for him to convince moderates when he faces President Obama in the (hopefully fewer) national debates after September. If Obama wins re-election in November, he will have to thank Republicans for having organized so many presidential debates.