Primary debates suffer due to Americans’ hunger for entertainment

Republican presidential candidates, former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, right, and Donald Trump both speak during the CNN Republican presidential debate at the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library and Museum on Wednesday, Sept. 16, 2015, in Simi Valley, Calif. (Mark J. Terrill/AP)

It did not take long for the second GOP primary debate to switch from politics to childish brawling. Candidates bickered about everything from physical appearances to their wives to previous insults they had made toward each other. And American viewers ate it up.

In fact, this and the previous debate ranked higher in viewership than any previously televised presidential primary debate. The Aug. 6 debate had a record 24 million viewers for Fox News, while CNN counted 23 million viewers on Sept. 16 for its own personal record. The 2012 GOP primary debates, in comparison, saw 3.2 million viewers for Fox News and 7.6 million for ABC.

CNN achieved these viewing numbers even after establishing an extremely apolitical tone for debate within the first few questions. Questions such as, “Would you feel comfortable with Donald trump’s finger on the nuclear codes?” and “Tell Governor Bush why you are a serious candidate and what your qualifications are to be commander-in-chief,” were prevalent throughout the night. The moderators even brought in unrelated questions like, “What would you want your Secret Service codename to be?”

As a result, CNN had to weather some heavy criticism regarding its decision to turn the candidates against each other rather than having them discuss their own political views.
Before the event even occurred, the New York Times quoted CNN moderator Jake Tapper illustrating his plan for the debate: “That’s how we’ve been crafting our questions, so that Senator X will respond to what Governor Y said about him or a policy he proposed,” Tapper said.

According to Tapper, one of the other rules of the debate was that candidates would have permission to request a follow-up if they were mentioned. In consequence, the moderators forfeited much control of the debate to the candidates, who took advantage of the opportunity to deliver low blows toward each other.

A great number of CNN’s questions and follow-ups were directed at candidate Donald Trump, who has brought a celebrity spectacle to the Republican debates. Thus, according to Forbes Magazine, Trump finished the debate with 18 minutes and 47 seconds of speaking time, more than any of the other candidates.

The candidates themselves have frequently received blame for the apolitical style of the recent debates, due to their tendencies to navigate around questions. The quality of the debate suffered so greatly that candidate Gov. John Kasich said, “If I were sitting at home and watching this back and forth, I would be inclined to turn it off.” He couldn’t have been any more wrong.

Kasich said this 16 minutes into the debate, while CNN reported that peak viewership occurred at 9:00pm, an hour into the debate. If any of the 23 million people were asked why they did not stop watching after these disappointments, chances are it would be for one simple reason: entertainment.

What most Americans are neglecting about this issue is that they want to be entertained. The viewership numbers prove that current American interest in politics is largely for entertainment and has little to do with national and civic concern.

CNN is a news provider, but it – just like any other news source – will provide whatever coverage attracts the most viewers. As long as Americans tune in for the celebrity spectacle of Donald Trump, or the amusement of vicious altercations between Rand Paul and Jeb Bush, the media will publicize it and focus on it. If Donald Trump brings in the most viewers, he will get the most speaking time. If people enjoy watching conflicts between Marco Rubio and Chris Christie, the candidates will be pushed into similar situations. And if Americans follow the callous comments the candidates make before the debate, they will surely come up within the three-hour broadcast.

Politics is not a spectator sport; if Americans are not actively engaged and questioning debates and other political broadcasts, the line between politics and reality television will become blurred. As long as debates are crafted and viewed for entertainment purposes only, subsequent debates – Democratic and Republican – will be just as nonsensical as the last two.


Alex Oliveira is a contributor to the Daily Campus opinion section. She can be reached via email at alexandra.oliveira@uconn.edu.