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by Melissa Flandreau

recent article in The New Yorker, “The Debate Debate” by Hendrik Hertzberg, brought up the question of whether this election cycle has been host to too many debates between the Republican primary candidates. The number has already surpassed where it was at this point for the Democrats in 2008 — nineteen to a previous sixteen — which means a new “pre-nomination record” is a distinct possibility.

The article discusses whether the many debates are a good or a bad thing — both for the candidates and for the voters. It’s an interesting argument, one that I thought worth examining in large part because of how crucial the forums have been in influencing the public’s perception of the potential GOP nominees.

There are both positive and negative aspects to the increased number of debates, and strong cases can be made for both sides. Journalist John Cassidy claimed the frequency has made them “mush together in my mind like splotches of paint on a Jackson Pollock canvas.” Hertzberg’s article also pointed out the fact that there will be significantly fewer debates between President Obama and the GOP candidate — an issue that raises his question of “If it takes a party twenty-odd debates to pick a candidate, are three enough for a country to pick a President?”

So, at what point does it become unnecessary to rehash the same issues over and over again? In general, debates receive the most attention when one candidate does something to stand out — usually for a negative reason. People spent time talking about Newt Gingrich blowing up at John King, or making light of Rick Perry’s Tim Tebow of Iowa comment, but there’s much less discussion over serious topics and the candidates’ stances. Unless it’s particularly humorous or controversial, potential voters are unlikely to reblog/retweet/post about a comment Mitt Romney makes on health care.

On the other hand, having more frequent debates creates some positive results. One of the most significant effects is the increased audience participation. Live tweets, submitted questions, Facebook posts, YouTube debates — there’s an added level of interactivity to events that’s a marked change from their previously passive state. In their article, Rita Kirk and Dan Schill refer to the 2008 presidential debates as “a digital agora”; they say, too, that these events have transformed from “mouthpieces or magnifiers for campaign messages” to “participatory spaces.” Schill and Kirk argue that this is a positive outcome, one that allows for better understanding of the political process and “increased feelings of citizen efficacy.” One would hope that having a large number of pre-nomination debates would have the same sort of effect — and perhaps even encourage increased voter turnout by the time the presidential election rolls around.

Despite the debate on debates, the events will continue for this election cycle, for better or for worse. For his part, Herzberg believes they’re a good thing, and I, on the whole, agree. His reference to a statement made by Newton Minow of the Commission on Presidential debates was particularly salient to me: “[They are] the only time during presidential campaigns when the major candidates appear together side by side under conditions that they do not control.”

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