Why the Republican Party Needs Debates

GOP debate
Charles Ommanney for Newsweek

It has become trendy, in recent weeks, to dis this year's Republican presidential debates—especially if you're a Republican. Karl Rove, for one, has carped that they've "nearly crippled campaigns." John McCain has gone further: "We've got to stop the debates!" he barked last month. Even Chris Wallace, the Fox News anchor, has piled on, despite having moderated four of the things himself. "It is ridiculous how many debates there have been," Wallace opined, adding that at this point people tune in only "to see if there's going to be a wreck."

The conservative complaint is that after 19 installments—with the 20th set to air Feb. 22 on CNN—the only thing the debates are doing is "driving up our candidates', all of them, unfavorabilities," as McCain has put it. The shows have been too much Survivor, they whine, and too little West Wing. Meanwhile, the Dems are looking on, licking their chops.

But this seems shortsighted. One could argue, in fact, that the reality-TV-ification of the Republican contest will benefit the Republicans as much as (if not more than) the Democrats. By helping to winnow the field American Idol style, the theory goes, the 2012 debates may eventually do what no primary, caucus, or party leader has so far been able to do: unite the fractured GOP around a credible nominee.

To understand why, it's important to learn a bit about the concept of "common knowledge," an idea I first heard about from Brendan Nyhan, the Dartmouth political scientist and media critic, who floated it as one possible explanation for 2012's debate-centric polling fluctuations. Sometimes taking action requires knowing that other people know what you know (and that they know that you know). This is what UCLA economist Michael Chwe calls a "coordination problem"; a couple can't really be married, for example, unless other people recognize them as a couple. Hence the wedding ceremony.

According to Chwe, the debates have served a similar purpose for the Republican Party. "What happens at a debate is 'common knowledge,'?" he says. "Someone viewing the debate not only sees the candidates herself, she also knows that many other people are seeing the same thing. So if I see Perry debate poorly, that affects not just my own opinion of Perry but also my opinion about whether others will vote for him. In a situation like the GOP primaries in which each person wants to do the same thing as everyone else"—choose a nominee—"common-knowledge events are particularly powerful."

And they've been more powerful this cycle than ever before, with the entire primary contest seeming to pivot every time the candidates congregate beneath the klieg lights. By refusing to coalesce around Romney the way the Democrats coalesced around Obama and Clinton in 2008, the party's base left more room "for folks to make a run in the polls and get some attention," explains George Washington University political scientist John Sides. The lack of a Democratic primary forced the media to focus its attention, as did the sheer number of debates: more clashes between the candidates meant more "newsworthy" moments, which meant more material for our 24-hour news cycle. The cable channels and the candidates, meanwhile, conspired to keep the confrontations coming: the former to increase their reach and prestige; the latter to communicate with lots of voters as cheaply as possible. And then there were the voters themselves. They resented the GOP establishment; they were determined to make their "own decision" about whom to support; and they seemed to believe that Obama was a teleprompter-driven dolt. In other words, they were precisely the sort of people whose minds would be changed by every little debate development.

So yes: constant televised conflict is bound to make most, if not all, of the candidates seem somewhat less likable. But by transforming a selection process that used to take place in a few unrepresentative states into more of a collective, national experience, the debates have ensured that by the time this year's picky GOP voters finally settle on a nominee, they will know full well that they tested everyone else out—with their own eyes and ears, together—and simply couldn't find anyone better.

Without this eyewitness, process-of-elimination approach, Republicans might forever fret about a standard-bearer who was forced upon them by the so-called Establishment. But thanks to the debates, they will know—and they will know that other Republicans know—that whoever wins the nod was the least worst candidate, and that they were the ones who selected him, more or less. Now if only they can make sure he's more of a Kelly Clarkson than a Taylor Hicks.