By CHUCK RAASCH, Gannett National Writer
January 12. 2012 12:53PM
WASHINGTON - As Republicans march toward the likely nomination of Mitt Romney, it has become very apparent that frequent debates are an antidote to the big money that threatens to turn this presidential campaign into a year of living negatively.
Who says? The voters.
In New Hampshire on Tuesday, 84 percent of primary voters told exit pollsters that the frequent Republican debates were important in their final voting decisions. By contrast, only 41 percent said campaign advertising was important, although 71 percent called it a factor.
Barely half - 51 percent - said they had been contacted by the campaign of the candidate they had supported. So that old saying that Iowans and New Hampshirites won't vote for someone unless they've looked him or her in the eye is, at best, a half truth.
These exit results argue for even more frequent debates in future primaries. They make a strong case for more than the three presidential and one vice presidential general election debates that have been standard since 1988, although tradition and candidates' interests will be harder to buck there.
This year, four general election debates will be squeezed in over 19 days, starting with Denver on Oct. 3; Danville, Ky., Oct. 11; Hempstead, N.Y., Oct. 16; and Boca Raton, Fla., Oct. 22.
The next nationally televised Republican primary debate - the 16th since last spring involving the top candidates - will be Monday night in South Carolina. Another is scheduled there Thursday, two days before the Jan. 21 primary. Two debates are scheduled in Florida before its Jan. 31 primary. By then, the number will surpass the 17 Republican primary debates in 2008. If this nomination fight drags out, the final tally could exceed the Democrats' 23 of four years ago.
There has been a steady rise in the number of primary debates since Republicans held just seven in 1996, according to an analysis by University if Missouri communications professor Mitchell McKinney, author of several books about presidential debates.
"Debates tend to rank very highly among the voters as a useful source of information in making their decisions or in confirming their voting decisions," McKinney said. "Voters cite this as a more direct, unfiltered, the real candidate (forum) as opposed to very slickly produced television ads, Internet and radio ads, or robo calls with celebrities and others."
This year, expect an unprecedented flood of negative advertising, much of it run by so-called Super PACS that may or may not disclose their donors. This arrangement became easier and proliferated after the Supreme Court's 2010 Citizens United decision.
While the public condemns it, the fact is many voters are still swayed by negative advertising. We've already seen what a Super PAC favoring Romney did to Newt Gingrich in Iowa. Its blistering ads against the former House speaker sent Gingrich plummeting from first in polls to fourth in the final Iowa caucus results, obliterating Gingrich's ambitions to be the clear conservative alternative to Romney heading into South Carolina. And now a Gingrich-allied PAC is poised for a return volley in South Carolina.
Debates can be at least a partial antidote to this tit-for-tat nastiness. They take candidates out of teleprompter comfort zones, and they can force them to answer for the negatives and half-truths thrown out on their behalf. Done right - without moderator preening and sponsor self-promotion, and with a premium on vital follow-up questions - they offer a whiff of authenticity for voters who should view political advertising, mailings, and online electioneering as far short of the whole truth.
The problem with Super PACs is that candidates can deny responsibility for any nastiness put forth in their name. By law, the two entities aren't supposed to coordinate, although that is a fig leaf, easily surmounted. In debates, however, candidates can be asked directly to answer for any messages on their behalf.
"When it has to come out of their own mouths and standing within arm's reach of their opponents, they are not willing to use (surrogates' harsher, even erroneous, attacks)," McKinney said. "So I do see debates as an antidote."
Past attempts to add more debates to the general elections have been resisted by candidates and campaign advisers. Strategists complain that debate preparation and travel takes away strategic control of their campaigns in the precious final days. Translated, it takes them away from even more rallies and speeches in the dozen or so swing states that usually decide elections.
Which gives yet another argument for frequent debates - the buy-in factor. Voters in New York, California, Texas and other solidly blue or red states will again largely be spectators in 2012. Debates give Americans in those states at least a temporary sense of belonging to a presidential campaign that otherwise might totally pass them by.
Chuck Raasch is national political writer for Gannett. His column, New Politics, appears here and on USA TODAY.com. A native of South Dakota and a graduate of South Dakota State University, Raasch has covered political campaigns since 1978, including Tom Daschle's first race for Congress and George McGovern's last race for the Senate. He has covered presidential campaigns since 1988.