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Making a Case for Debates

On Oct. 11, Bloomberg aired the seventh Republican presidential primary debate of this election cycle. By the time voters hit the polls Jan. 31 in Florida, one of the ! rst primary states to vote, we will have seen at least eight more.

That number may seem like overkill to casual observers of the primary process, and even to the campaigns themselves. But the television news executives who plan and produce all these debates say a case can be made for all that airtime.

“Every cycle is the same: More people watch the later debates than watch the earlier debates,” says Sam Feist, CNN senior VP and Washington bureau chief, “in part because the interest level in the campaign is going up and also because the choices are narrowing.”

But even in the early rounds of the campaign, before a single ballot is cast, networks insist viewers have reasons to tune in to each and every debate.

For one, debates are designed in part for the geographic region in which they take place, and that usually changes each round, though early-voting states like New Hampshire, Iowa and South Carolina often see more appearances. As such, networks tend to focus primary debates on the issues important to the state where it’s occurring. For CNN’s Oct. 18 debate in partnership with the Western Republican Leadership Conference, questions will address economic problems relating to land use, real estate and energy.

Audiences can play a defining characteristic, too, such as when several crowd members at Fox News’ Sept. 22 GOP debate booed a gay soldier questioning the candidates about repealing Don’t Ask Don’t Tell, which became a news story itself.

While debates are announced many months in advance, the questions moderators will eventually ask the candidates are often not written until the weeks and even hours before the debate, to center the discussion around the most current issues.

“We’ve got to remember these are news events, meaning if something happens that day, these guys running to be leader of the free world ought to have a chance of telling us what they think within the moment,” says Chuck Todd, NBC News political director and chief White House correspondent.

Also working in favor of continuing viewer interest is that the dynamics of a primary campaign are constantly influx, including the slate of candidates. When Rick Perry tossed his hat into the ring shortly before the Sept. 7 debate on MSNBC, it became the most-watched debate of the cycle to date.

And while New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie’s and Sarah Palin’s declarations that they do not intend to seek the presidency make another late entry unlikely, come early 2012 viewers will see the field narrowed substantially to candidates who could viably win the nomination to challenge Barack Obama.

“By late January, the dynamics of the campaign, I think, will be changing regularly, which will make all the debates interesting,” Feist says.

Besides the function of debates as news and television events, they are ultimately about the democratic process and informing voters about the issues important to the presidential election, which may be the best argument for what could otherwise be seen as overexposure of candidates.

“I am more than sympathetic to the critique among the campaigns of there’s too many debates,” Todd says. “On the other hand…these debates have become oddly equalizing. Herman Cain wouldn’t ever have been as big a player as he is today were it not for the debate process. I would argue in the long term it has been healthy toward opening up the process a little bit.”

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