Front Row: Presidential debate overload?: The Swamp
The Swamp
Posted January 23, 2008 12:34 PM
The Swamp

mcmanus by Doyle McManus

This year's presidential campaign -- and it's not even half done -- is already historic for several reasons. It has been the first truly wide-open campaign since 1952, with no incumbent president or vice president anywhere in the competition. On the Democratic side, it has been the first campaign with a viable female candidate and a viable African-American candidate. On the Republican side, it has seen at least a temporary fragmentation of Ronald Reagan’s coalition into factions of economic, national security and social conservatives, a problem the GOP must now resolve.

And one more odd distinction: It's setting a new record for the number and variety of debates. We’ve had no fewer than 20 Democratic debates beginning in April 2007, eight months before the first caucus in Iowa -- including such innovations as a radio debate and a YouTube debate (the one with the talking snowman). The Republicans have been more restrained: they’ve held only 18 debates, but they'll nearly catch up with a debate in Florida Jan. 24.

Which raises an unexpected question: Is there such a thing as too many debates?

The conventional wisdom, of course, is that debates are an unalloyed public good. The Lincoln-Douglas debates of 1858 were seminal moments in the national struggle over slavery; the Kennedy-Nixon debates of 1960 confirmed television’s new role as the dominant medium of political discourse in the twentieth century.

But Lincoln and Douglas only met to debate seven times, Kennedy and Nixon only three. And no one ever asked Lincoln, Douglas, Kennedy or Nixon to answer a question from a snowman - the low point of last year’s arduous succession of debates, for my money. (I’d rather listen to Dennis Kucinich describe his UFO sightings any day; at least he, unlike the snowman, is arguably real.)

So by historical standards, we are already suffering from debate overload. The moderators and panelists don’t like to admit it, but by Iowa and New Hampshire they were in danger of running out of new questions to ask. The candidates were scrambling for new talking points. The tanking economy saved them all by opening a new line of inquiry.

In most cases, it’s not even clear that the debates have affected the outcome of the caucuses and primaries much. John Edwards seemed to be the dominant figure at the final Iowa debate, but he still finished second to Barack Obama in the caucuses Jan. 3. Mitt Romney “won” the New Hampshire debate two days before the Jan. 9 primary, in the view of reporters who watched it -but lost to John McCain at the polls.

And yet - here’s the surprising thing - the audiences have been big, at least by the standards of public service programming, and as the campaign has heated up they’ve been getting bigger. The CNN/YouTube Republican debate in New Hampshire in November drew an estimated 4.5 million viewers; CNN’s debate in South Carolina on Monday drew almost 5 million, a record for cable. ABC’s Republican-Democratic doubleheader in New Hampshire this month drew more than 9 million viewers, a striking number for a public service program on a Saturday night and the largest debate audience of the whole season. (Reality-TV check: “American Idol” drew 33 million.)

These debates have also gotten better as they’ve gotten smaller, with some of the marginal candidates dropping out of the race - or, in some cases, being locked out because they fell short of whatever threshold the sponsors set. (For the criteria we have set for next week’s Los Angeles Times/CNN/Politico debates in California, go to, and look for the debate box.)

Forcing the candidates to answer one another’s charges in person has been more illuminating than allowing them to slide away from their statements in the dark. Hillary Clinton’s moue in New Hampshire when she was told she wasn’t likeable, and Barack Obama's icy aside that she was "likable enough," revealed hidden facets of both personalities. These debates have covered issues of substance, too, the kind of substance that doesn’t always get on newscasts about the horserace: the pros and cons of rapid withdrawal from Iraq, healthcare for the uninsured, how to make Social Security solvent, bankruptcy legislation, taxes, immigration.

The early debates gave little-known candidates such as Kucinich and Mike Huckabee and Ron Paul a chance to make their cases to a national audience, increase their fundraising and try to break into the top tier. Huckabee succeeded; the others didn’t, but it wasn’t because they didn’t get national television time. Their followers hate to hear it, but the messages of Kucinich and Paul simply didn’t attract as much support as those of other candidates. That’s how democracy works.

Next week, we are sponsoring two debates in California - the last debates before the “Super Tuesday” primaries of Feb. 5. The Republican candidates will debate at the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library in Simi Valley on Wednesday, Jan. 30; the Democrats will debate at the Kodak Theater in Hollywood on Thursday, Jan. 31.

We’ll be asking questions submitted by our readers. To send in a question, go to our politics page online and look for the box headed “2008 Presidential Debates.” Or just e-mail your question to me at; I’ll do my best to get into the mix.

Doyle McManus, Washington bureau chief for the Los Angeles Times, has covered national politics and world affairs for 32 years. A former foreign correspondent in Europe and the Middle East, he has reported from more than 60 countries. He has covered every presidential election since 1984 and was a White House correspondent during the Bill Clinton administration.

Digg Delicious Facebook Fark Google Newsvine Reddit Yahoo


There are to many debates when the candidates don't say anything. Or the print press, radio, TV take sides.

Example: I don't know why there isn't another podium at the TV debates for Senator Hillary Clintons husband.
He seems to be getting just as much press as anyone.

You should hardly be surprised at what I am about to post but here it is anyway...

With on a few small primaries out of the way and with Ron Paul being flush with cash with other "top-tier" candidates are going broke, it is EXTREMELY pre-mature to count out Ron Paul. He will survive Guliani and Huckabee in this race, not to mention Thompson, Hunter, and Tancredo that are already out.

If you are going to editorialize about who is in or out at least wait till after super tuesday when a larger percentage of the nation gets to vote.

Considering Ron Paul raised more money than any other republican candidate in the 4th quarter last year and I believe so far this year as well, he is hardly a fringe candidate.

Quit undermining the democratic process by "helping" your readers choose who is and isn't a worthy candidate.

You say, "Their followers hate to hear it, but the messages of Kucinich and Paul simply didn’t attract as much support as those of other candidates. That’s how democracy works." Really, I guess if you equate democracy with corporatism and propaganda.

The real story in this election so far is how well Ron Paul has done inspite of a near black out by the media. In the event that they do talk about him it is almost always in a negative "longshot candidate" slight of hand. After placing Second in NV and having the second most money on hand at this point in the process the real story is the media and the GOP's efforts to silence his message of peace, prospertiy and FREEDOM. Please wake up America and recognize that you are being presented with propaganda, not, news.

Funny, I've yet to see a debate. I've seen numerous joint press conferences, but no debate yet.

No the more debates the better. Most of or news is so filtered and biased this is the only time we can see the candidates without the bias of "news" filtering. Lets face facts the major news organizations MSNBC hate Hillary and love Barack and John McCain FOX is a pure Republican right arm. The more debate the better! How many will we see in the General?

Nope. And my group is hosting one of our own online:

Hey I'm with you Doyle, no more debates! We wouldn't want people to actually make up their own minds while watching how the candidates answer questions and respond to each other. If that were to happen what would you do for a living?
Tim M - Missouri -

They can save all that jet fuel that the candidates burn up by just placing a tape player at each podium. The candidates say the same thing over and over and over, so the moderator needs only to ask the question and press "play." On the other hand, the "debates" are a great sleep inducer.

Too many debates? No way. They could have been better, though -- more time to answer the questions, more fairness in treating all the candidates equally. Football games are 3.5 hours long -- why do presidential debates have to be 90 minutes?

Apparently, Ron Paul did "catch on" with the public. He has over 100,000 volunteers -- more than any other candidate -- and raised nearly $20 million in the fourth quarter, more than any other Republican. He placed 2nd in Nevada, and has received more total votes than Giuliani so far.

Granted, Huckabee has risen farther in the polls, but he was never dismissively labeled a "long shot" who "won't win" by the press every time they talked about him. For all of his supposed "break out" success, he's won only one caucus, and is just about out of cash, unlike Ron Paul, who can continue to roll into the February 5th contests.

OH, QUIT COMPLAINING!!! If the NEWS organizations would stop talking and talking and talking about this it would not be much of an issue. Remember, it is only politicians talking, there is nothing really important about what they are saying. As we've seen OVER AND OVER again, they always say one thing and do another.

Dennis Kucinich's message is light years ahead of the other candidates and that is why he appeals to just a certian segment of people. They are called enlightened.
Some are afraid to vote for DK because the media tells us who to vote for, and keeps the honest future thinking candidates marginalized and out of the debates so we don't think they are in the race anymore. Very sad state of affairs in the USA.

Doyle says: "The early debates gave little-known candidates such as Kucinich and Mike Huckabee and Ron Paul a chance to make their cases to a national audience, increase their fundraising and try to break into the top tier. Huckabee succeeded; the others didn't..."

"...Paul simply didn’t attract as much support as those of other candidates."

Ok, maybe Paul hasn't broken into the top tier because that 2nd place in Nevada was a very distant 2nd, but increase his fundraising Ron Paul did. And like it has already been pointed out, that cash flow is going to keep him in it no matter what happens Super Tuesday. Huckabee and Giuliani will be broke but will hold on with anyone willing to work for free, but will ultimately be gone shortly after Feb. 5th. Ron Paul will not surprise much or at all on Super Tues. but he will at least remain consistent and much more viable.

Ron Paul's campaign and his supporters know that this a marathon, and that fighting the powers that be make it that much harder to get his message out, so "lasting" is important to winning. And no it's not just the fact that Paul continues to get money that's keeping him in the race, it's that the contributing base continues to grow.

Are there too many debates? Please, the American voters need as many opportunities as possible to have a chance to see the candidates, you know, in case one or two debates conflict with Grey's Anatomy or some other really important television event.

Totally disagree.
The debates are the only chance you can hear what the candidates are really saying (or not saying). And the more people listen, the more Ron Paul makes sense.

"the messages of Kucinich and Paul simply didn’t attract as much support as those of other candidates."

Paul? Really? So, all of those cash donations came from... outer space??? I smell B.S.

Nope, there's not too many... but the debates should include everyone. I'm classic check-to-check lower-middle class, 42 yrs old, construction worker/CAD operator; zero credit cards, and I'm broke today. I want Ron Paul's message to actually be considered by this liberal media, and anyone who cares about the solvency of this country because it IS all about the economy to me, the American economy, not Iraq, or Korea, or Iran, etc. I want this corporate-biased big government out of my pocket, and I care what we leave to our children (although I've known all my life that I won't get any SS income). Students- you think Obama is really going to "change" anything? You'll regret his agenda, too. Mr. McManus, this is your invitation to interview me; I want the candidates to respond to my questions. ...but then I am only one of ...1 million?

usually a story about a true american of integrity doing as well as ron paul has done considering the lack of the main stream media attention would be a great story. it has become all too clear that we no longer can trust the media for important information concerning the future of our nation and that we are all owned and controlled by the corporate elite. i truly don't know how these people live with themselves. eventually all will realize what is going on here and the lack of credibilty and true disdain will be their demise.

It's sad that Dennnis Kucinich and Ron Paul were esentially excluded from key debates and marginalized in the ones they were admitted to (less than 3 minutes average per 1.5 hours).

And the candidates were favoured by the truly talentless moderators - it was all a truly pathetic spectacle, when it could have actually been fantastic for voters.

It's all essentially a corporatist sham.

I have seen very little questioning by press regarding
evil influence of corporations. Only John Edwards have made this point. I do not like Clinton and Obama monopolizing the stage. If it is a three way debate it should allow equal time to all three candidates for sake of fairness.

Your comment that "... the messages of... Paul simply didn’t attract as much support as those of other candidates. That’s how democracy works", is ridiculous. Ron Paul attracted 55,000 new donors on Martin Luther King Day. That is an incredible show of support and the media needs to stop trying to control the debate by telling the public who is a "top tier" candidate. Paul has consistently beaten Giuliani in polls AND the primaries yet the media still insists Giuliani is more viable than Paul. What form of democracy is that?

You are part of the problem.

Post a comment

(Anonymous comments will not be posted. Comments aren't posted immediately. They're screened for relevance to the topic, obscenity, spam and over-the-top personal attacks. We can't always get them up as soon as we'd like so please be patient. Thanks for visiting The Swamp.)

Please enter the letter "s" in the field below:



Sarah Palin




Campaign trail

Latest polls

Electoral vote map


Test your scenarios

Unauthorized tour


Obama's Chicago

News, but funnier


Walt Handelsman


The Lowe- Down


Editorial cartoons



Know the presidents?


Your McCain IQ


Your Obama IQ


Bush twins

Candidate match

Test assumptions