The Campaign Spectator

The Campaign as TV Show

How televised debates defined the GOP presidential race.

By From the March 2012 issue

Send to Kindle

By the time Floridians voted in their Republican presidential primary, two of the candidates had already participated in 19 nationally televised debates. Former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum and Texas Rep. Ron Paul had been among five GOP hopefuls who appeared in the first TV debate of the long campaign on May 5, 2011, in Greenville, South Carolina. The other three candidates who had been on the stage at that event televised by Fox News—former New Mexico Gov. Gary Johnson, former Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty, and Atlanta businessman Herman Cain—were all out of the race by the time of the January 31 primary in Florida. And their fates offered an insight into the way TV debates shaped this year's campaign:

  • Johnson's libertarian message failed to attract the kind of support that had made a political cult figure of Paul, who espouses similar positions. Despite his successful record as governor, Johnson never registered the kind of poll numbers necessary to qualify for inclusion in most of the later debates. He finally quit the GOP race in December and announced he would seek the Libertarian Party's presidential nomination.
  • Before the campaign began, Pawlenty had been expected to be among the most formidable challengers to the preemptive Republican frontrunner, former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney. Pawlenty had a strong record and was praised by many leading conservative pundits, including George F. Will. Yet Pawlenty proved to be lackluster in debates, beginning with that May debate in South Carolina, where he was upstaged by the charismatic Cain. In the second debate—June 13 in Manchester, New Hampshire—Pawlenty was again upstaged, this time by Minnesota Rep. Michele Bachmann, whose entry into the 2012 field made her an instant celebrity among the Republican contenders. Pawlenty then focused his efforts on a showdown with Bachmann in the Iowa GOP straw poll in August. A debate on Fox News two days before that crucial event was highlighted by the clash between Pawlenty and Bachmann, a conflict that most observers saw as favoring the latter. Bachmann won the straw poll and Pawlenty, who finished a weak third behind Paul, quit the race the next day.
  • Cain's strong performance in the first South Carolina debate immediately generated buzz for his Tea Party-backed candidacy. In a post-debate focus group run by pollster Frank Luntz, Cain was the near-unanimous winner. But he got relatively little attention in the next few debates. The June debate in New Hampshire was highlighted not only by Bachmann's campaign debut, but also by Romney's first appearance in a TV debate. The August debate in Iowa focused mainly on the Pawlenty-Bachmann battle. And in three September debates, the most closely watched candidate was Texas Gov. Rick Perry. But when Perry turned in a series of disastrous performances—especially the September 22 Fox News debate in Orlando—the Texan's poll numbers collapsed and, by virtue of winning the Florida GOP straw poll, Cain suddenly became the new frontrunner. Cain's own debate performances raised questions about his preparedness for the presidency, especially in terms of foreign policy, but he was ultimately undone by a series of allegations of sexual impropriety.

Such were the fates of three-fifths of the candidates who appeared in the first televised debate of the long 2012 campaign, and neither of the two survivors from that first debate—Santorum and Paul—were viewed as serious contenders for the Florida primary by the time the 19th debate, this one televised by CNN, was held in Jacksonville on January 26. The frontrunners were Romney, who had been campaigning for president more or less nonstop since 2007, and former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, whose strong debate performances were generally credited for his victory in the January 21 South Carolina primary.

Judged strictly from the size of the crowd on the debate stages, the 2012 GOP campaign peaked on September 22, when nine candidates—Romney, Gingrich, Perry, Bachmann, Johnson, Paul, Cain, Santorum, and former Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman—participated in the Fox News debate in Orlando. That night was destined to be remembered for what ultimately proved to be the fatal blow to Perry's once-formidable campaign.

Challenged over a policy that permitted illegal immigrants to pay reduced in-state tuition at Texas universities, Perry said of the policy's critics: "I don't think you have a heart." Perry's support collapsed almost overnight. Prior to that debate, the Real Clear Politics average of national polls had shown the Texan leading the field, with an eight-point margin over Romney. Within two weeks, however, Perry had slipped to third in the Gallup poll. By the third week of October, Perry had a mere 6 percent in a CBS/New York Times poll that showed him fifth. Perry's campaign, which had raised millions of dollars in the weeks after he entered the race, began spending heavily on TV advertising in Iowa in an effort to recover his lost momentum. Yet this proved futile, as Perry's debate gaffes continued to haunt him. In a November 9 debate in Michigan, televised by CNBC, Perry couldn't remember the names of the three federal departments he had proposed abolishing. He eventually placed a disappointing fifth in the Iowa caucuses, ultimately quitting the race and endorsing Gingrich two days before the South Carolina primary.

Three days before Perry quit, Huntsman dropped out and endorsed Romney. The Huntsman campaign had, at times, seemed to exist entirely for the purpose of allowing him to participate in the TV debates. His poll numbers among Republican voters never reached double digits, yet he always seemed to poll just well enough to clear the thresholds set by the TV networks that controlled the debate rosters. And so Huntsman—whom I dubbed "Governor Asterisk"—often chewed up a substantial slice of TV time during the 12 debates in which he appeared, even though he was the least plausible of the Republican candidates. Huntsman had a reasonably conservative record in Utah, but had accepted a position as ambassador to China from President Obama, whom he had effusively praised. The Huntsman candidacy was propped up by laudatory coverage from liberal outlets like MSNBC. When he scored a third-place finish January 10 in New Hampshire, exit polls showed most of Huntsman's support came from voters who approved of Obama's policies and opposed the Tea Party movement. In his speech on primary night in Manchester, however, Huntsman called his 17 percent showing a "ticket to ride" in South Carolina and beyond. But that ticket was soon shown to be invalid, and he quit before the next debate, January 16 in Myrtle Beach.

By the time Huntsman and Perry withdrew, Bachmann had already departed the campaign trail, quitting the day after the Iowa caucuses, where she placed sixth. With a strong conservative record and support from the Tea Party movement, Bachmann was also unmistakably telegenic and might have been expected to flourish in a campaign so clearly defined by TV debates. Yet she never was able to capitalize on her August victory in the Iowa straw poll, and the debates might have had a lot to do with the way Bachmann's campaign fizzled. She landed forceful attacks on Perry, Romney, and Gingrich during the debates, but felt that she wasn't getting as much attention as other candidates. And there was good reason for Bachmann to suspect she was being slighted by the debate moderators. Before a November debate in Spartanburg, South Carolina, hosted by CBS, an e-mail from one of the network's reporters was accidentally sent to one of Bachmann's staffers, saying that "she's not going to get many questions and she's nearly off the charts."

This evidence that the networks were playing favorites, particularly to the disadvantage of candidates who ranked lower in the polls, seemed to confirm a factor that other candidates—including Cain and Santorum—had previously complained about. The debates sometimes seemed staged to provide headline-making conflicts between frontrunners, and this show-business aspect tended to disadvantage the "second-tier" candidates. There was other evidence to that effect, such as when media reporter Howard Kurtz watched while the Fox News team planned for the September debate in Orlando, with Fox News managing editor Bill Sammon commenting that the planned questions would "get some fireworks going."

Had the dominance of televised debates reduced the 2012 campaign to the level of a show-biz publicity stunt, manipulated by TV networks? Had the relationship between poll numbers and media coverage become a sort of self-fulfilling prophecy, so that only those with good poll numbers could expect good coverage, and vice-versa? Had network executives and pollsters completely replaced Republican voters as the deciders of the GOP nomination? These were obvious questions raised by the long campaign, but none of the moderators in any of the debates ever raised those questions, perhaps for the same reason the Wizard of Oz warned Dorothy to ignore that man behind the curtain.

Like this Article

Print this Article

Print Article
About the Author

Robert Stacy McCain is co-author (with Lynn Vincent) of Donkey Cons: Sex, Crime, and Corruption in the Democratic Party (Nelson Current). He blogs at The Other McCain.