The GOP Primary Debate Is Thoroughly Unimportant

by James Downie | June 13, 2011

Tonight, seven Republican candidates will take part in the first New Hampshire primary debate of the 2012 campaign. Michele Bachmann, Tim Pawlenty, Herman Cain, Mitt Romney, Newt Gingrich, Rick Santorum, and Ron Paul will do rhetorical battle from 8 to 10 p.m. at St. Anselm College in Manchester. Almost every participating candidate has a point to prove in this debate: Romney will have to prove his conservative credentials and defend his Massachusetts health care plan, Cain hopes to build on his successful (if superficial) performance in last month's primary debate, and Gingrich will have to show he still has a prayer of even carrying on as a candidate. At least, these are the storylines created to fill the next few days of cable news chatter. Are primary debates really that important?

Well, they're not as important as in past campaigns. In a 2008 dissertation for the Institute of the Study of the Americas at the University of London, Mark Wheeler compared news coverage of each primary debate across four elections (1992, 1996, 2000, and 2008). He found that while the number of televised primary debates had generally increased, said increase had an inverse relationship with how much print coverage each debate received. New technology did not necessarily boost coverage, either: Though the YouTube debates received much print coverage, the September 12 Democratic "mashup debate" received the least coverage of any debate in the study. As Wheeler points out, with fewer viewers for more televised debates, the coverage of said debates has become more and more important in shaping campaign narratives. Yet if news coverage declines when there are more debates (as there are sure to be in the long 2012 GOP primary), then maybe politicos should reconsider just how crucial these debates really are.

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