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Magazine

Open Up the Debates

photo of Matthew  Dowd
November 17, 2011

Let me lay out a scenario. A candidate running for president holds federal elective office, has run for president before, is thoughtful and thinks outside the box on a number of issues, has the capacity to raise a ton of grassroots dollars, finished strong in the Iowa straw vote this summer, is currently running in the top three in nearly every national poll, and is polling second in both the Iowa caucus and the New Hampshire primary. Hmmm, seems like a fact set where you would be taken seriously. But not if you are Ron Paul.

At the recent National Journal/CBS debate held in South Carolina, this could not have been clearer. The controversy over CBS Political Director John Dickerson’s inadvertent e-mail to a spokeswoman for Michele Bachmann, and the explanation afterward, revealed that the question and time allotment strategy was determined by the candidates’ standing in the polls. It is my understanding debate organizers based their decisions on a CBS News poll released several days before the debate. Herman Cain led the field at 18 percent, followed closely by Mitt Romney and Newt Gingrich, each of whom had 15 percent. Paul placed fifth with 5 percent of the vote, behind Rick Perry, who had 8 percent. ele Bachmann had 4 percent, Rick Santorum 2 percent, and Jon Huntsman 1 percent.

Some of you may question this as a method for organizing a debate, but it does have some logic and reasonableness about it. Based on this apparent strategy, Ron Paul should definitely have had plenty of time to articulate his positions on foreign policy issues.

 

Did the 11-term Texas congressman get the second- or even third-most allotted time -- which is what you would guess based on an effort to call on candidates in order of their standing in the polls? Hardly. In the hour of the debate aired nationally, Paul got the least amount of time of any of the eight candidates. That’s right: He finished eighth out of eight. If you assume each candidate was going to get at least one question in the first hour of the debate and subtract that 60 seconds from each candidate’s total, the results are even more telling: Romney got roughly 12 times as much time as Paul, Perry 10 times, Santorum eight times, Cain seven times, Gingrich six times, Huntsman and Bachmann each more than 4 times. Deducting the one-question allotment, the actual time each candidate spoke in the first (nationally telecast) hour of the debate went roughly: Romney six minutes-plus, Perry five minutes-plus, Santorum four minutes, Cain nearly four minutes, Gingrich three minutes, Huntsman more than two minutes, Bachmann two minutes, and Paul 30 seconds. Yes, you read that right.

Santorum, Huntsman, and Bachmann, who are in the cellar in nearly every poll, each had at least quadruple the air time as Paul did at the last debate. People make the argument that Paul has no real shot to win the nomination, and that is why he should not be called on as frequently. But if that were the criterion then at this point Perry, Santorum, Huntsman, Bachmann, and even Cain should be treated the same or worse.

I am a columnist for the National Journal, which cosponsored the debate, but I’ve got to question the allotment. More questions should have gone to Paul if only for the sake of good television, since his positions contrast sharply with those of the rest of the GOP field, especially on foreign policy and national security. He wants to end all the wars immediately, is pretty much an isolationist, is morally opposed to torture, and constantly raises concerns about the United States becoming a police state and invading our privacy based on terrorism concerns. And even with -- or because of -- these stands, he is performing very well in all the polls. Seems like must-see TV to me with all the candidates enjoying a passionate discussion.

And so like many moments in politics, this raises another concern: the media’s systematic exclusion from the debates of candidates who may actually have become competitive in this very fluid environment if given a nationally televised forum to reach to voters. A good example is former Louisiana Gov. Buddy Roemer. Here is someone who served in both the Congress and as governor, who has a very consistent message about corruption in Washington, who is very good on the stump, and who is the only Republican savvy enough to adopt some of the Occupy Wall Street messaging and run a more populist campaign.

Given a spotlight, that’s a combination that might have ignited voters this year. But alas, we will never know. Why not exclude a couple of the other candidates who are polling at 1 or 2 percent, sub in Roemer for one debate and see what happens?

The good news in all of this is that debates matter. Voters are hungry for the type of exchange and openness and authentic performance that they provide. Debates matter much more than paid advertising, which is wonderful news. The bad news is that many media outlets are still trying to force the process through an outdated political model by either limiting time for candidates they don’t deem worthy or completely excluding others. And that does a disservice not only to the voting process but also to the bottom line: the media’s viewership.

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