Debating The Debates

I don’t like eating crow any more than the next guy, but I have to admit that I was off-base when I predicted  that television would not play a critical role in this year’s presidential election.

I had observed that the ads and TV coverage of the national party conventions weren’t moving the needle and didn’t expect the debates to do so either.  In my own defense, I did caveat that “unless one of the candidates makes a grievous error, the debates are unlikely to change many minds.”

What I didn’t foresee is that one candidate would undergo a personality change and that the other would barely show up.  Based on the lackluster campaign to date, I never thought that the Oct. 3 debate could turn out to be the single most consequential campaign moment since the first Kennedy/Nixon debate of 1960. (I’m inserting more caveats here: it’s possible there will be an even more important moment between now and Nov. 6 -- perhaps, at tonight’s debate.)

The performance of the two candidates has been rehashed ad nauseam.  Most analysts have probed the quirks of President Obama’s diffident personality, leaving little time for the equally interesting question of how Mitt Romney (Mr. Doofus up until now) was able to suddenly channel his inner alpha dog.  The media is so preoccupied explaining how the President blew it that they don’t seem to realize Romney was a quantum leap better than he was at any other TV appearance – ever.  If this were an athletic competition, you’d think he was juiced on steroids.

But as surprising as the candidates’ performances were, the size of the TV audience was almost as unexpected.  The 67.2 million viewers who watched on Oct 3 far exceeded the 52.5 million who tuned in for the first debate of 2008.   More people watched Romney and Obama debate than watched them deliver convention speeches – even if you add both conventions together.  This was the largest audience for a first debate since 1980, and one of the biggest ever.

Given that the ratings for the 2012 conventions were so much lower than in 2008, we could have expected similarly ho-hum viewing numbers for the 2012 debates.  After all, there was a lot more excitement four years ago; we were in the midst of the worst economic meltdown since the Depression and one part of the electorate was inspired by Barack Obama while another was thrilled with Sarah Palin.   Given that this year’s polls were telling us that most voters had either already made up their minds or were demoralized, why the big audience?

Part of the reason might be that younger and middle-aged voters have started to engage with the campaign.  Older voters have dominated the ratings for political coverage this year, but on Oct. 3, only 46% of the audience was over age 55.  This tells me that the electorate is more fluid than the polls have indicated.  People may tell pollsters that they’ve made up their minds, but the Pew poll showing a 12-point post-debate swing to Romney suggests they reserve the right to say “never mind.”

I’m not really sure why I bother to cite polls, which have come in for such a beating this year.  Between their inability to reach cell phone-only households and the challenges of weighting for anticipated turnout, they seem less reliable than ever. Don’t just take my word for it.  The voters think so, too. Any how do I know that?  From a poll!  Yep, they are polling voters to find out whether they think the polls are biased.

As impressive as the TV ratings were for the debate, some media outlets tried to gild the lily by adding in Internet viewing.   CNN.com reported 1.2 million streams and YouTube said that it had “millions” of debate viewers, leading some to report that total viewing actually exceeded 70 million.

Not to keep beating a dead horse, but we don’t know that.  There might or might not have been several million people viewing online, but there are no metrics to tell for sure. You can’t add the number of streams to the number of TV viewers and come up with a total number.  Nielsen reports an “average audience” number: the average number of people watching at any one time.  The Internet figures are just the number of people who streamed part of the debate, even if they only watched for a minute.

To reach a comparable “average audience” metric for online streaming, you’d need to get the time spent viewing each stream, add them all up and divide by the length of the program.  And that’s just assuming there’s one viewer per stream. No one has those numbers.  

It will be interesting to see what the ratings are for tonight’s second debate.  The Biden/Ryan vice presidential debate last week raised the stakes even higher by firing up the two parties’ bases.  What we all want to know tonight is which candidates will show up.  Which Romney and which Obama?  Gotta tune in to find out.

Tags: tv
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