Who Lost the New Hampshire GOP Debate? Me

by Stuart Rothenberg June 24, 2011 · 9:38 AM EDT

While most of political America has by now offered their thoughts about who won the June 13 Republican presidential debate in New Hampshire, I’m quite certain about the loser: me.

That’s right, I’m the big loser because I spent two hours of my time — hours that I’ll never get back — watching a meaningless debate rather than baseball (though I was able to follow the evening’s games on my computer).

I try to avoid watching these debates whenever possible and fully intended to miss this one, too. But I felt guilty because I missed the first Republican presidential debate (on Fox) and people seem to assume that I’ve watched every televised debate, no matter how few candidates participate or how meaningless the event.

Early (pre-Labor Day) presidential debates are only slightly more important than presidential straw polls taken around this time of year, and they are totally meaningless.

Yet, newspapers report the results and observers comment on them. Rep. Ron Paul (R-Texas) won another straw poll? Yawn. It’s about as newsworthy as a tree falling in the woods if nobody is around to see it. It simply has no effect on anyone or anything.

These early debates, including the June CNN/WMUR event, could have been newsworthy, I suppose, if former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney had said the U.S. should attack China or if former Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty had proposed repealing the Bill of Rights. But, alas, no such luck; just the usual claptrap about taxes, spending and abortion.

Obviously, televised debates can have an effect if something interesting happens during them, or if viewers are trying to make a decision about their votes.

CNN got a decent viewership for the debate — decent as long as you compare the debate with other early meaningless debates.

The cable network won the 8 p.m., 9 p.m. and 10 p.m. hours that night, over-performing its usually less-than-scintillating ratings. But compared to network programming, the debate was a drop in the bucket.

While CNN drew 2.8 million views during the first hour of the debate, ABC’s “The Bachelorette” drew more than 7.8 million, game six of the NHL Stanley Cup finals on NBC drew 6.6 million, and reruns of “How I Met Your Mother” on CBS (admittedly, one of the better shows on television) drew 4.5 million at 8 p.m. and 5.5 million at 8:30 p.m.

CNN drew almost 3.5 million viewers during the debate’s second hour, but that put it behind all of the major networks, including Fox’s “MasterChef” (5 million). It did beat a repeat of “Gossip Girl” on the CW network.

In contrast, presidential debates that take place during the six weeks before an election do matter, and they have generally drawn 35 million to 70 million viewers, according to Nielsen Media Research.

Iowa voters take a lot of information in before they make their decisions, and I’m sure some were watching the CNN debate. The same goes for primary voters in New Hampshire.

But in a debate missing at least two candidates who are likely to be serious contenders for the GOP nomination (Jon Huntsman and Rick Perry), it’s difficult to believe that the June CNN debate made much of an effect on the fight for the nomination.

Still, reporters, handicappers, analysts, talking heads, people famous in their own minds and anyone aspiring to fall into one of those categories all had opinions about who won and who lost, as if the June 13 event was a heavyweight boxing championship or the Super Bowl.

Unfortunately, many of the comments told us more about the person commenting than the debate participants.

For example, many people picked Rep. Michele Bachmann (Minn.) as the “winner” of the debate, noting with surprise how well she did compared to the rest of the field. I guess they were expecting her to froth at the mouth.

Before I interviewed Bachmann in 2006, Democratic operatives warned me that the then-state Senator and tax lawyer was a “right-wing” kook, and it could be that some who have never met her assumed that was exactly what they would get on stage at the CNN debate.

But the Bachmann of that debate was the same one I interviewed in 2006, a poised, personable and articulate legislator whom you might not agree with but who certainly can hold her own when she isn’t trying to throw political hand grenades, as she often does.

Conversely, I heard that many observers thought that Pawlenty did poorly and “lost” the debate. He didn’t stand out, they said.

Maybe Pawlenty should have worn a clown outfit or spoken French to stand out to please these observers, who seemed to think that the debate was part of an elimination tournament.

No, Pawlenty didn’t stand out, but it’s June of the year before the caucuses and primaries, and he’ll have many opportunities to present himself to voters. And if he does well in the Iowa straw poll and wins the state’s caucuses, which has absolutely nothing to do with how well or how poorly he did during the CNN debate, then he’ll automatically “stand out” and have a chance for the GOP nomination.

These early debates, assuming the participants keep their cool and say nothing totally weird, are primarily opportunities for the TV networks and sponsoring companies involved to promote themselves and give their employees something to do.

There is nothing wrong with that, just as there is nothing wrong with anyone pronouncing who won and who lost. Just don’t think that it has a lot to do with winning the Republican nomination for president, at least not at this point in the race.