The Parties Should Worry about Primary Debates
I almost dropped my phone when I saw on Twitter that 24 million people had watched the Republican primary debate on August 6. For the sake of contrast, 1.8 million people watched the first Republican primary debate in 2007, the last year that the parties were competing for an open presidential seat. That’s thirteen times more people–more than an order of magnitude. I can think of a few potential explanations for the explosion: the Trump effect, the growing ubiquity of social media and “second-screen” viewing, the emergence of “hate-watching” as a real thing, the reduction of debates on the calendar, and just increasing interest in the spectacle of politics more broadly, but regardless of cause, more potential voters in the Republican primaries watched this debate than any other. This should cause great concern for the political parties: the debates have taken on outsize significance, and they are largely outside of the parties’ control.
It was already the case that primary debates play a significant role in voters’ selection process. Vox.com put together a video explaining the difference between general election debates and primary debates, and it seems dead-on: party and policy differences aren’t much affected by general election debates, but because there is so little daylight between candidates in a party primary, people are open to many options, and the debates are the best way to see the differences between those options. Vox cited a study from two communications professors, Mitchell S. McKinney and Benjamin R. Warner, that asserted that 35 percent of people changed their candidate preference based on primary debates, and fully 60 percent had some voting preference change. This squares with logic: There aren’t usually bright dividing lines on policy between candidates seeking the nomination of the same party; voters are choosing between people that are very similar. So it’s easy to envision switching between candidates. (Jeb Bush and Scott Walker are rhetorically and stylistically different, but their policy preferences are certainly in the same neighborhood as one another.)
The formula here is straightforward: an increase in the number of viewers of debates means that there is an increase in the share of primary voters who watch debates, which means that the primary debates have greater ability to alter the views of voters. This effect can be coupled with the enormous size of the 2016 Republican field: it will take fewer voters to shift their opinions in order to have a major effect on results. If only 10,000 potential Jeb Bush caucusers in Iowa changed their opinions of Jeb because of his debate performance, that can cause a major swing. (Let’s take 2012 as an example: if 10,000 Rick Santorum caucusers went to Rick Perry, Santorum would have finished in fourth, rather than first.)
Altogether, the share of Republican primary voters who will have watched a primary debate has increased dramatically over the previous few cycles. It was one thing when it seemed like the debates were simply theater: a setting where political junkies and operators studied the candidates. In those instances, the media presence was harmless, and indeed beneficial: one could see how candidates would handle different types of challenges from disparate press coverage. But today, primary debates are not simply for political obsessives, as many of us may have thought in previous years; they genuinely affect the opinions of voters.
For their part, in the first GOP debate of this cycle, moderators Megyn Kelly, Bret Baier and Chris Wallace put together an excellent series of questions for Thursday night. They were tough–the questions were designed to hit at candidates’ weaknesses, and they reflected the concerns of Republican voters. Here’s one for John Kasich from Megyn Kelly:
Governor Kasich, You chose to expand Medicaid in your state, unlike several other governors on this stage tonight, and it is already over budget by some estimates costing taxpayers an additional $1.4 billion in just the first 18 months.
You defended your Medicaid expansion by invoking God, saying to skeptics that when they arrive in heaven, Saint Peter isn’t going to ask them how small they’ve kept government, but what they have done for the poor.
Why should Republican voters, who generally want to shrink government, believe that you won’t use your Saint Peter rationale to expand every government program?
Here’s one from Chris Wallace to Scott Walker on immigration:
Governor Walker, from 2002 until as recently as 2013, just two years ago, you supported comprehensive immigration reform, including a path to citizenship. Now you say that was a quick reaction to something you hadn’t really thought about, and that you’ve changed your mind. Other than politics, could you explain why in the last two years you’ve changed your position on a path to citizenship, and are there other past positions that we shouldn’t hold you to?
Here’s one from Kelly to Chris Christie:
Governor Christie. You’ve said that Senator Paul’s opposition to the NSA’s collection of phone records has made the United States weaker and more vulnerable, even going so far as to say that he should be called before Congress to answer for it if we should be hit by another terrorist attack.
Do you really believe you can assign blame to Senator Paul just for opposing the bulk collection of people’s phone records in the event of a terrorist attack?
These are challenging questions. No slam dunks for anyone, and they are geared towards Republican voters’ concerns: immigration, the Medicaid expansion, bulk collection of phone records. The moderators acquitted themselves well, and deserve the praise they have received.
However, to paraphrase James Madison, enlightened moderators will not always be at the microphone. For an example of what that looks like, simply look at the so-called “kids’ table” debate. Here’s the second question faced by Rick Perry, from Martha MacCallum:
Now to the elephant that is not in the room tonight, Donald Trump.
Let’s take a look at this graphic that shows the huge amount of political chatter that he is driving on Facebook right now, some of it good, probably, some of it bad. But he is dominating this conversation. Governor Perry, you two have been going at it. But given the large disparity in your poll numbers, he seems to be getting the better of you.
The only thing a question like this serves to do is make polling data relevant, long before it has any predictive power. (Also, it’s not even a question!)
Here’s another one, going back to 2012: ABC’s George Stephanopolous inexplicably dragged the debate into a five minute discussion on whether a state would have the right to ban contraception:
Governor Romney, do you believe that states have the right to ban contraception? Or is that trumped by a constitutional right to privacy?
It was a bizarre question that had little salience for Republican voters, and served no real purpose in terms of helping voters decide where to cast their vote.
As the debates have risen in significance, it is now clear that the parties have outsourced an incredible amount of power to actors that do not necessarily have the best interests of the parties in mind. Protecting a favored candidate from tough questions–or worse, feeding questions in advance to favored staffers or friends–is a risk, and the parties and their voters would have no knowledge–and no recourse, really.
More importantly, while more voters may well tune in to the debates, they may not be fully acquainted with the personalities and foibles of the various moderators. The moderators present themselves as without biases. Conservatives rail against media bias–and I think they’re right to do so, in terms of near-unanimity of worldview–but it is often difficult to recognize tacit biases seeping through questions. If, for example, John Kasich, the Left’s favorite current Republican candidate, goes into a debate on ABC and sees slightly easier questions than Ted Cruz because the question writers unconsciously put their thumbs on the scale for their preferred candidate, that could affect voter preferences. (Note that this is a far greater risk than a similar effect in the presidential debates, where voter preferences have additional anchors, like political party. Republicans loathed Candy Crowley’s intervention in the second presidential debate in 2012, but comparable intervention could have a much more significant impact in a primary debate.)
This is mostly speculation, and surely, it is possible that everyone who makes it to the heights of debate moderation can craft fair questions. But that is not a risk that the Republican Party–or the Democratic Party, for that matter–should take. The primary debates are now too important. Moderators can enforce time rules, but they themselves should not be the story. And for as well as Kelly, Wallace, and Baier handled the role, they dominated the conversation: the three together accounted for 31 minutes of airtime, which was more than three times as much as any candidate, and almost four times as much as any candidate who isn’t a joke. It is like having an NFL game where after every single play, the referee comes on screen for a clarification or to throw a flag. We hate when this happens as football fans, and we should feel the same way about political debates. We’re not there to watch Ed Hochuli and Gene Steratore, good referees though they are; we’re there to watch Andrew Luck and Calvin Johnson. Likewise, we shouldn’t be there to watch Kelly and Wallace, good moderators though they were; we’re there to watch Scott Walker and Ted Cruz, or Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders.
Now that voters appear to be taking the debates seriously, it is high time for the parties–institutionally weakened though they are–to reassert control. I offer three potential solutions:
1. In an ideal world, we would dispense with the moderators altogether. Nondescript judges could sit at a table enforcing timing rules, while candidates asked one another questions.
2. If dispensing with the moderators isn’t a viable option, why not have the moderators be someone with the best interests of the party in mind–namely, retired or senior party members or elected officials themselves? For the Republicans, I envision Tom Coburn and Judd Gregg, two well-respected former senators. For Democrats, why not Al Gore or Barbara Boxer (who is retiring)?
3. If the moderators must be “media”-types, why not look to commentators and opinion-writers instead of journalists? Instead of (ostensibly-neutral) Chris Wallace, why not someone like Ross Douthat or Ed Morrissey? For Democrats, instead of (ostensibly-neutral) Megyn Kelly, why not someone like Jamelle Bouie or Christopher Hayes?
At the end of the day, the presidential nomination process is about identifying the best candidate to achieve the twin goals of winning an election and advancing policy aims. The way things are designed now, if debate moderators assist in that process, it is entirely incidental, rather than by design. We lucked into a solid debate last Thursday night: FOX’s (primetime) moderators did well. But that will not always be the case, and both parties should be thinking about how to improve the status quo.
Cover photo from a screenshot of FOX News, August 7, 2015, at 9:25 AM.