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6 Reasons We're Feeling Debate Fatigue

Depending on how you tally them up, there have been 26 debates so far this GOP primary season. How many is too many?
Brian Snyder
Reuters /Landov
Depending on how you tally them up, there have been 26 debates so far this GOP primary season. How many is too many?

Oh no. Not another debate among those guys who are running for the Republican presidential nomination. By at least one count, Wednesday night's Dustup in the Desert — sponsored by CNN and Arizona's Republican Party — is the 26th such face-off — if you count forums and head-to-head encounters.

Getting to know the presidential candidates is all well and good. But, well, is this good? Are we really seeing the four remaining hopefuls — Newt Gingrich, Ron Paul, Mitt Romney and Rick Santorum — from different angles? Are we asking new questions? Hearing original answers? Or are we using interrogation tactics, repeating the same questions over and over again in hopes that the subjects will slip up, flip-flop, melt down, crack up or downright lie?

For their parts, the candidates look pretty cool: refreshed, ready, raring to go. It's the rest of us who are so tired. A Rasmussen Report — following the last debate in Florida — shows that the largest number of respondents (45 percent) think there have been too many GOP debates already.

"The American people are not especially interested in politics," says Allan Lichtman, a presidential historian at American University. "Just over 50 percent of adult citizens vote in presidential elections and less than 50 percent in midterm elections. So debate fatigue is to be expected."

We say we want to get to know our choices. So why do we still whine and whinny about too many debates? Here are six possible reasons:

1. Law Of Diminishing Returns. That first bite of ice cream always tastes a lot better than the 26th. Perhaps we are feeling debate fatigue because there have been so many confrontations of a similar nature. If this group drafted a new Constitution, it might begin Ennui the people... "The debates have lost their entertainment value," Lichtman says. "We now have familiar candidates saying much the same things they have been saying for months."

2. Emphasis Is On Personality, Not Policy. "Discussing character can be far more personal and seem nastier than say, education policy," says Neera Tanden, president of the left-tilting Center for American Progress. In 2008, Tanden helped Democratic candidate Hillary Clinton prepare for debates.

3. Debates Feel Like Lectures. The candidates act a lot like college professors. (Gingrich, of course, has taught a course or two.) But many Americans may not be that interested in sitting in a national classroom — listening to politicians hold forth. In fact, a recent Washington Post article notes that — in this age of easy technological engagement and interactivity — colleges are rethinking the old-school lecture. "Science, math and engineering departments at many universities are abandoning or retooling the lecture as a style of teaching, worried that it's driving students away," the Post reports.

4. Spontaneity Is Sparse. Writing in The American Conservative, Rod Dreher imagines that if Romney is asked why he wants to be president, "I bet his answer will be so canned that it will tell us something about him. But maybe nothing that we don't already know." The other hopefuls, also, are prepped to be so on-message that they seldom stray from rote replies. "At this point," says Allan Lichtman, "the candidates have mostly lost their spontaneity and are giving well-rehearsed answers." They are putting the canned in candidates.

5. Audiences Can Be So Rude. By permitting — at times even encouraging — audiences to cheer, jeer, boo and audibly express their feelings, communications guru Kathleen Hall Jamieson says on Moyers & Company, the debates "have created a context in which the viewer at home is not watching the candidate and responding to the candidate, but is instead responding to the interaction between that candidate and an audience ... You are being cued to respond to the question and the answer in a way that doesn't let you, yourself, reflect on the meaning of that answer." The TV ratings have been relatively high. But the debate audiences "have put off a lot of voters," Democrat Neera Tanden says. She remembers that the atmosphere four years ago was quite different. "No hissing at service members. Or applauding someone dying without insurance."

6. Even The Candidates Are Tired Of Debates. Even attention-starved candidates don't want the attention of more debates. "These debates are set up for nothing more than to tear down the candidates," Rick Perry told Fox News in October, a few weeks before pulling out of the race. Now candidates are pulling out of the debates right and left. CNN and MSNBC have canceled debates scheduled before Super Tuesday in March.

The public response to debates is complicated, says Carolyn Curiel, who helped Bill Clinton prepare for debates against Bob Dole in 1996. Now a professor at Purdue University, Curiel points out that some of the 45 percent of respondents to the Rasmussen Report poll who said there have been too many Republican debates "nonetheless acknowledged the critical role of the debates. Nearly 70 percent of those polled saw the debates as important to how they would vote."

Echoing Tanden, Jamieson, Perry and others, Curiel says voters want candidates to answer questions about the issues of deepest concern. "Those concerns are almost universally economic: gaps in wealth, employment opportunity, economic mobility, access to good education, health care, housing," Curiel says. "These complicated issues are not always best represented in modern debate formats that compress response time."

And, she says, "voters may be tired of questions and answers about the candidates' personal lives that get the most media attention."

That might result in good theater, Curiel adds, but not the best debate.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Linton Weeks
Linton Weeks joined NPR in the summer of 2008, as its national correspondent for Digital News. He immediately hit the campaign trail, covering the Democratic and Republican National Conventions; fact-checking the debates; and exploring the candidates, the issues and the electorate.