Debates, Campaigns, and The Road Ahead

Debates are exciting entertainment. For most of us out there that aren’t even the casual athlete, arguing with others gives us the chance to express our competitive spirit. Some of us are just bred to argue with anything and everything that is said. Even when we don’t agree, we’ll argue any point as the devil’s advocate. Therefore, it is no surprise in a Republican field with over a dozen candidates, the debates give us some measure of interest. The Fox debate brought in 24 million viewers, a record for primary debates. CNN’s ratings weren’t too shabby either at 23 million despite the 3 hour marathon session that tested the energy of both candidates and voters alike.

Notably, some candidates have faltered. Perry dropped out of the race after an initially successful campaign four years ago and a decade long tenure as Texas governor before that. Walker announced as of yesterday that his days of seeking higher officer were over, at least for the moment. Carly Fiorina, despite her notable failures as both the CEO of Hewlett-Packard and Republican nominee for US Senate from California, is surging on the back of solid debate performances. So, given that the debates are having such an apparent impact on the race, why should we put less stock in what’s been seen on stage and in the polls versus what is likely to happen when the campaigns really ramp up after the holiday season?

We have seen this before. Herman Cain was in single digits during the 2012 Republican nomination content until a very solid performance in the September 21 debate held in Orlando. Within a month he topped the field according to Real Clear Politics, and with another six weeks he was out of the race entirely. Newt Gingrich followed a similar path after a very solid October debate performance which saw him surge then falter as the campaigns progressed. Historically, we can systematically paint a picture of great debaters who turned out to be failed candidates for office. At the least, these two anecdotal examples suggest that.

Debates can be an integral part of any campaign strategy, especially those starved for attention and donor support. If your candidate is an effective orator, even small moments show signs of passion and glory that invigorate those with deep pocketbooks. Taking Fiorina as an example again, she’s surging in polls at the moment thanks to her performances and will likely find some endorsements and dollars a result. However integral they are, though, they do not replace the nuts and bolts of an effective strategy and competent machine marching forward. We can look at Herman Cain’s utter lack of capability to handle the negative news that ultimately sank his campaign in 2012 as an example of that.

The real test of these candidates is not how they can position themselves on a stage next to their opponents; the real contests will take place in Iowa gymnasiums and New Hampshire ballot boxes. The real campaigns will be separated from those that are pretending their way forward on the back of good debate performances. Of course, it helps if a campaign has both, but in the end those built for long term success will engender positive support in the electorate via their turnout operations. The podiums and lights, when they are packed up and shipped to the storage room until next time, won’t cast ever ballot. The candidates that remember that will ultimate be the victors.