CNN’s Republican presidential debate in New Hampshire on June 13 may very well mark a new phase in the 2012 race — or, to put it another way, a chance for a campaign so far marked by reticence to really rev up.
For the news networks, the event also will be an indicator of the public’s thirst for politics, particularly when compared with the record audiences that tuned in to follow the unmatched drama and historic moments of the previous election cycle.
While the media has had teams in place and has been covering the buildup to the race for months now, the public is starting to pay attention, says CNN anchor John King, who will moderate the New Hampshire debate. King adds that the dynamics at play will be no less than a “consequential tug of war for the soul of the Republican party.”
Mitt Romney, Michele Bachmann and Newt Gingrich will be participating in their first debate of the cycle along with Tim Pawlenty, Ron Paul, Rick Santorum and Herman Cain. Invitations went out to prospective candidates Jon Huntsman, Rudy Giuliani and Sarah Palin, all of whom have yet to formally declare and have indicated they would not attend.
“This is the bulk of the Republican field in a debate for the first time,” says King, who calls the debate “not the final exam, but the curtain raiser,” and he’s aware not only that there’s a “riveting dynamic in the Republican party,” but that viewers are just getting to know the candidates.
Earlier on June 13, CBS News is taking a different approach: a town hall meeting focusing on the economy, in which Bob Schieffer and Erica Hill will host Republican politicos Tom Coburn, Paul Ryan, Nikki Haley and Allen West at the Newseum in Washington.
“It is always hard to predict the level of interest and the cycles of interest in politics. It waxes and wanes,” says Mark Lukasiewicz, vice president of NBC News specials and digital media. “There was a lot more activity at this stage in the last cycle. However, we are seeing a lot of interest in the issues at play, the foreign wars and the battle over Medicare and Medicaid. There isn’t any indication that this is not going to be a competitive race and a real battle for the GOP nomination.”
Fox News was the first out of the gate with a 2012 presidential debate May 5 in South Carolina. Even though the event was missing much of the field — only Pawlenty, Paul, Cain, Santorum and Gary Johnson took part — it drew 3.27 million viewers. That’s a boost from the 2.55 million who watched FNC’s first debate in May 2007, according to Nielsen.
Once limited to only a handful of pre-general election encounters, the debates in 2008 proved a boon to the news networks, in both ratings and as a promotional platform. By the time it was all over, candidates had participated in 30 debates — 16 Democratic and 14 Republican. They peaked with ABC’s coverage of the final primary season debate between Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton on April 16, 2008, with 10.7 million tuning in.
With Obama running unopposed, there will be fewer opportunities to host such forums, but the media is seizing on the ones that are there. So far, more than a dozen events are on the calendar or in the works for the pre-primary and primary season.
The challenge this time around may be to stay relevant in a fast-changing landscape of technological tools.
As happened in the runup to the 2008 election — marked by YouTube’s talking snowman asking questions of candidates, or Facebook’s seemingly endless feedback pages — there’s pressure to develop innovations on the format.
“Social media has obviously exploded since the last presidential cycle,” Lukasiewicz says. “And we fully intend to make use of that. What has changed is it really is not going to be enough (for a moderator) to just read an e-mail once an hour. We are going to have to be more creative in how we integrate social media and the audience in debate coverage.”
In fact, the organization that sponsors the general election debates, normally the most formal of all presidential matchups, is studying ways to adapt to an era of broadband and interactivity, says Janet H. Brown, executive director of the Commission on Presidential Debates.
CNN’s plans for June 13 take the concept of the YouTube debate “to another level,” says Sam Feist, senior VP and Washington bureau chief and executive producer of the debate. In addition to Republican voters at the venue at Saint Anselm College, the network is setting up town meetings in New Hampshire locales Plymouth, Hancock and Rochester, where participants also will be able to ask questions of the candidates. The network plans to deploy electronic dial testers for feedback, as well as focus groups. They will show a QR code — those small barcode matrixes popping up everywhere — so viewers can scan them with their smartphones and instantly access exclusive mobile content.
“It is not purely about technology,” Feist says. “We don’t want to innovate for innovation’s sake. What we want to do is provide the best forum for viewers to judge their candidates. At the end of the day, what makes for a good debate are the candidates and their answers.”