Did Rick Perry have a momentary, comical brain freeze in the midst of delivering a potentially powerful conservative message of slashing government, one that he’s dealt with brilliantly by defusing it with self-deprecating humor? Or did he prove by forgetting the easiest of talking points that he’s not even remotely capable of representing the Republican Party as its presidential nominee?

The answer, of course, is both, or neither; it depends on how you look at it. And for most voters, the way they’ll look at it is by how it’s covered by various news outlets; for most Republican primary voters, that means how it’s covered by Fox News Channel, by Rush Limbaugh and other conservative talk show hosts, and to a lesser extent how it’s discussed in the conservative blogosphere. That’s even true of the people who were actually watching the debate — we’re much more apt to remember the clips we see again, and to place what we saw in the context of what everyone is saying about it. But it’s obviously true of everyone else. And remember, even with the debates having unusually large audiences this year, we’re still talking about no more than about 6 million viewers, which is small even in the context of the low rates of primary election participation.

Which means that what really matters is how the people who make decisions at those outlets saw Perry’s flub…or, more accurately, how they choose to portray it, whatever they may think about it. So what really matters is what the various producers, reporters, and writers want to say, and in turn what and who influences them, which might be ratings/page views, or other institutional incentives, or their own personal political views, or what GOP opinion leaders say, or whatever.

This comes up because Jonathan Chait speculated this week that perhaps party control of nominations will be loosened this cycle because of the effects of the debates:

The more important function of the debates is that they circumvent the party apparatus. Republicans are less dependent on tuning into the media – in this case, usually Party organs like Fox News – to learn who the leading candidates are. They can squeeze the merchandise themselves.

I think that’s not only wrong, but backwards. Debates are more mediated through party leaders than the older methods of contacting voters: direct contact in the living rooms and doorsteps of Iowa and New Hampshire, and TV ads.

Now, we don’t really know exactly how what I call the GOP-aligned media works…hey, there’s enough trouble trying to figure out all the biases in the old neutral media. It is certainly possible that the rise (or revival, since it dominated the 19th century) of the partisan press empowers some party factions and actors at the expense of other ones. And it’s true that even if party actors completely control the nomination process that they still must form opinions of the candidates in some way (given that we’re talking about too many people to meet with all of the candidates one-on-one), and so it’s very possible that some of them use the debates to form their own view of the candidates. So I’m not going to say that the debates don’t or can’t matter in the nomination process. They can, and do, matter.

What they don’t do is provide an unmediated interaction between candidates and rank-and-file voters. Debates are far more mediated than ads or direct campaign contacts. And that means that to understand the effects of the debates, we need to know who is interpreting them and how.

[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.