Just when you think the influence of television can’t get any more central to the political process, it does. Today’s Iowa Caucuses end the first phase of the presidential campaign -- and so far television has been a more significant player than ever before.
This wasn’t the way it was supposed to be. The rise of social media was going to change the dynamic between the voter and the candidate. In 2008, the “Obama Girl” videos on YouTube helped solidify candidate Obama’s image as a cool, sexy guy, with a strong appeal to young voters. And there was every reason to think that Facebook and Twitter, barely a presence four years ago, would continue to magnify the influence of the Internet in choosing the president.
Television has upended Iowa’s reputation as a caucus state that is driven by “retail politics,” requiring candidates to spend an enormous amount of time on the ground meeting voters in every hamlet. But, it wasn’t the power of organization, endorsements or social media savvy that dominated the campaign. It was the sight of six to eight candidates debating among themselves almost weekly (and usually outside Iowa) that became the decisive factor in the race. And then once the debates were over, old-fashioned television ads pounded home the candidates’ messages.
There were so many televised debates that they became the equivalent of a popular reality show. Eight of them attracted more than five million viewers, with a peak of 7.6 million viewers during the Dec. 12 event on ABC. Discussion of these debates dominated news coverage, with TV commentators on straight news shows, comedy news shows (“The Daily Show” and “The Colbert Report”) and late-night talk show hosts all dissecting the candidates’ performance at length.
The overarching theme of the GOP nomination process has been a search for an alternative to Mitt Romney, and this has played out in the debates as well. He played it safe for as long as he could, apparently happy to be everyone’s second choice until he was mauled in the ABC debate (“I’ll bet you $10,000…”) Then he decided to get aggressive, appearing on every news show possible, and regained some momentum.
Without the debates, Romney’s main challenger might well have been Rick Perry, who shot to the top of the polls the day he announced his candidacy. With deep financing, an impressive record as governor, an ideological platform that appealed to social conservatives and a ruggedly handsome countenance he would have been a contender in a normal year. But he was completely undone in the debates, culminating in the famous “Oops” embarrassment.
Without the debates, there would have been no Herman Cain movement. In a normal year, a one-time restaurant association lobbyist and pizza CEO without money or organization would have remained in obscurity, but the debates (and his 9-9-9 mantra) made his candidacy, and the constant buzz on Fox and the comedy shows generated enormous publicity that propelled his campaign (at least until he got the wrong kind of publicity).
Without the debates, Ron Paul would have been considered just another crazy old coot, but his strong and sincere articulation of libertarian principles in the debates gave him unanticipated credibility.
And, of course, without the debates there would have been no Gingrich resurgence. Written off for dead six months ago, he momentarily became the favorite solely on the basis of his debate performance -- at least until he was smacked back into place by a barrage of negative television ads.
The late surge by Rick Santorum is a bit harder to explain solely in terms of television. His performance in the debates was unremarkable and he has received far less TV coverage than the other candidates. Although he has spent an enormous amount of time in Iowa, his recent success is probably more a reflection of the voters’ disinclination to anoint Romney so early in the process (this is especially true among social conservatives). Since all the other traditional challengers have flamed out, Santorum benefits from being the most recent and probably last alternative to Romney.
While the debates have achieved large audiences, they have skewed heavily to one demographic: older voters. Two-thirds of the average audience for all the debates has been over age 55, while only 7% of the audience has been age 18-34. Looked at another way, the rating for the various age breaks has been: a 0.4 rating for age 18 to 34; a 1.1 rating for age 25-54; and a 4.1 rating for age 55+.
Ratings tilted so heavily to older audiences would be the kiss of death for an ordinary TV show, since Madison Ave is interested primarily in 18-49 viewers, but in the political world, the votes of older citizens actually do count. And since older voters vote much more reliably, it is not surprising that they spend more time watching political debates.
Of course this is only phase one of the campaign, so there’s no way of knowing if television will continue to dominate the presidential campaign. It’s possible that one of the candidates will come up with a series of videos that go viral on Twitter and Facebook.
In any event, it is clear is that the reality show aspect of the campaign is not ending soon. I count six more debates scheduled for January. And once the results come in tonight, chances are good that at least one candidate will be voted off the island.