With presidential candidates advancing or dropping out as if they’re on “Survivor,” this year’s election contest “is almost like a reality show with real consequences for the nation,” says CNN’s Wolf Blitzer.
So perhaps it’s fitting the final presidential debates before Super Tuesday, Feb. 5, will take place at two venues rooted in entertainment: Hollywood’s Kodak Theater, home of the Oscars, and the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library.
Blitzer will moderate the Democratic debate on Jan. 31 at the Kodak, and Anderson Cooper will preside over the GOP field at the Reagan Library Jan. 30.
It’s a last opportunity for the campaigns to make their mark before the Feb. 5 primaries in California and more than 20 other states, a juggernaut of voting that is bound to whittle down the field and perhaps produce a clear nominee from one or both parties.
Or maybe not.
“There’s so much uncertainty this year,” Blitzer says. “People come up to me and ask, ‘Tell me who’s going to win. You must know.’ But I really don’t know.”
The suspense has probably helped drive viewership. Some 4.9 million watched CNN’s coverage of the Democratic debate from Myrtle Beach, S.C., on Jan. 21, a record number for cable news coverage of a primary forum. What’s more, viewership actually increased in each of the four half hours of the debate.
Those just tuning in for the first time were met with the most contentious, bitter sparring between Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama to date — a far cry from the genteel, well-choreographed League of Women Voters matchups that were once the norm.
Some critics, however, cringe at the theatrics, and say the media are trying to turn the forums into a sideshow. The New York Times headline: “Issues Take Back Seat at Debate as Obama and Clinton Tangle.”
But Blitzer and David Bohrman, CNN’s Washington bureau chief and exec producer of debates, beg to differ. At the Myrtle Beach debate, Blitzer told the candidates several times the forum would stick to the issues, and just about all of the questions were topical, starting with the economy.
It was to no avail.
“We went out of our way to avoid the ‘horse race’ questions, or those about the politics and sniping in the race,” Bohrman says. “But you know what? You can’t stop a group of candidates who want to get a shot at one another.”
Blitzer says, “Trust me, I get blamed a lot. People will say, ‘Why do you egg them on?’ I was not trying to egg them on. … My deliberate goal was to hone in on the issues.”
Yet he also says he didn’t want to lord over the candidates as some sort of strict referee. As Blitzer says, “I sort of made the decision to let them debate.”
In its two California forums, CNN plans a similar hands-off approach, including allowing the audience to clap or even boo. As Bohrman notes, “There is a middle ground between a circus and dead silence. That is the note that we have hit.”
The two debates (co-sponsored by the Los Angeles Times and the Politico) will have slightly different formats, Bohrman says, with the candidates seated at a specially designed table onstage.
The Democratic debate will use the same backdrop CNN has used in its other forums; the GOP debate will have as its backdrop Air Force One, which is on permanent display at the Simi Valley, Calif., site.
“The plane itself will be the set,” Bohrman says. “It is Ronald Reagan’s Air Force One, and it is basically the prize.”
Not even a reality producer could have found a more fitting prop.