The Case for More Republican Presidential Debates

Big ratings for debates show an engaged electorate; why stop now?

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Republican debates, R.I.P. The last one before the primary season begins was held Thursday night, and I have to say that while I didn't watch every single one, I watched most of them and it was great fun.  They were entertaining for the most part, filled with all kinds of characters—both in the candidates and the interviewers—and the debates themselves certainly served a purpose. 

This year's debates helped voters go beyond 30 second ads and YouTube clips and, with the exception of that one "Twitter" debate, occasionally hear thoughtful responses to tough questions.  We saw a lot of humanity— Gov. Rick Perry's brain freeze, Herman Cain's humor, former Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich's "zany" side, former Gov. Mitt Romney's bet—and more than any other election year I can think of, we got to know these candidates as people.  The fact that we saw so many different frontrunners come and go is due in large part to how many debates we had and how closely people were watching them. 

[Check out 2011: The Year in Cartoons]

In fact, Erin McPike of RealClearPolitics documented recently that debate viewership has been growing as the primaries approach:

A Fox News debate in May drew 3.3 million viewers; in August, just prior to the Iowa Straw Poll, the network's second debate of the season attracted 5.1 million; and its third in September jumped again to 6.1 million. CNN boasted 3.2 million viewers for a June debate, followed by 3.6 million in September, and then improved upon that by nearly 2 million for the Las Vegas debate last month. NBC reached 5.4 million in September, and its sister cable network CNBC will host the outlet's second debate on Wednesday (at 8 p.m. from Rochester, Mich.). Compared to the primary debates four years ago, ratings are higher across the board.

While the numbers aren't out yet on viewership for last night's debate, Saturday's debate on ABC was No. 1 in the Nielsen ratings for that evening, with 7.6 million people watching.

[See pictures of the 2012 GOP candidates.]

We have an extraordinarily engaged electorate right now. I believe it will stay that way through the election, because voters know—even more than the politicians do—that the stakes are very high for our country. They're enjoying the contest of ideas. People are concerned about the role the government and the free market are going to play in creating a better future for our children, and if there were more debates, the viewership would continue to climb.  

Some folks might disagree, but I say: let's have a few more debates. This may say something about the sorry state of my social life, but they were my idea of a good time.

  • Vote for your pick for the 2012 GOP nomination.
  • Read the U.S. News debate on whether Gingrich can beat Obama.
  • See a collection of political cartoons on the 2012 GOP hopefuls.