The First (Half-Field) Presidential Debate

Presidential nominations serve multiple purposes. The party selects a candidate, to be sure. But it also chooses a platform. I’m not talking about the formal document that will be debated by earnest activists, ratified by the convention when only C-SPAN is watching, and then filed in a drawer and mostly ignored for the rest of the campaign. I’m talking about formal and informal bargaining and negotiations between candidates, activists, organized groups, and, yes, occasionally rank-and-file voters that really does produce the issue commitments that the nominee will make. So that happens. But that’s not all! Fringe groups within the party sometimes run candidates who have no chance to win but air minority views. And then sometimes self-promoters with no chance to win the nomination find their way to the stage, auditioning for a show on Fox News or MSNBC or whatever.

So all those things are happening at the same time. For that matter, even just settling on the candidate is (not surprisingly, I suppose) confusing. There’s a lot of it that goes on more or less behind the scenes, as formal party operatives, campaign and governing professionals, party-aligned interest groups, activists, and politicians all try to settle on a single choice – or fight over that choice – through endorsements, campaign finance donations, and other ways of putting resources to work. But there’s also a stage that is for mass electorates, who are strongly influenced by all of that other business, but also appear to be capable of acting independently, at least to some extent.

So how do early debates fit in? After all, we’re at the stage of insider bargaining, but debates are on the surface about mass audiences and electorates. Are early debates irrelevant? Or do insiders looking for a candidate pay attention to how the contenders do in these venues as part of their vetting? Really, neither reporters nor academics know the answer, since the true answer is probably some form of “it depends.” I can tell you that there’s a major bias among the press to overemphasize the most visible, televised, portions of the campaign. But we’re not talking about a general election campaign here, in which at the end of the day party, the economy, and other structural things are going to matter so much that debates really can’t do much. In primary elections, it really is at least theoretically possible for a well-timed quip to matter in a way that it just can’t in the fall. So while I wouldn’t want to make too much of these things, they’re not inherently irrelevant, either.

Meanwhile, as an avowed fan of the rituals of US politics, I’m officially happy to have them back, even the inane Frank Luntz post-debate focus group. But really, no hurry in having the next one, at least as far as I’m concerned.

[Cross-posted at A plain blog about politics]

Jonathan Bernstein

Jonathan Bernstein is a political scientist who writes about American politics, especially the presidency, Congress, parties, and elections.