It will be a first tonight in Iowa when George W. Bush, John McCain, Steve Forbes, Gary Bauer, Alan Keyes and Orrin G. Hatch appear in the same room and can question each other in a Republican presidential nomination debate.
Even so, pollsters and analysts aren’t sure how much such debates matter.
“Four out of five voters are not watching the debates,” says John McLaughlin, campaign pollster for Steve Forbes, who is running second to Mr. Bush in Iowa polls.
In their Dec. 2 New Hampshire debate, the six Republicans did appear together but were not permitted to quiz each other. They could do that in their Dec. 6 Arizona debate, but Mr. McCain was in New Hampshire and linked to the others via satellite.
Tonight’s encounter in Des Moines will be broadcast from 8 to 9:30 p.m. Eastern time. But viewers outside of Iowa can see it live only if they have cable television that carries MSNBC.
But then the first two debates that included all six Republicans also were available only on cable.
The relative paucity of viewers, however, doesn’t necessarily mean debates like tonight’s have meager impact. Arizona pollster Bruce Merrill says the “importance of a debate today is not so much what candidates do or say but the possibility that one of them may screw up.”
Mr. Merrill compares the debate watchers to car-race spectators “looking for a crash.” Except that even the prospect of a candidate crash isn’t all that interesting, in his view. “Debates don’t really have an impact because most people would rather watch Ally McBeal’ than the debate.”
While many voters find the debates revealing if not uniformly gripping, some political junkies yawn at the prospect of another one.
“I found the last debate so boring that I kept switching to a channel that had pro football,” Kenneth Goldstein, another Arizona pollster, says of the Dec. 6 debate.
Debate watchers, Mr. Merrill says, tend to be “older, better educated and ideologically oriented people.”
In that respect, debate watchers are like primary voters. Mr. McCain, for example, rose precipitously in the New Hampshire polls after the Dec. 2 debate; he now leads Mr. Bush in the state.
Pollsters and campaign consultants agree that a ripple effect magnifies the importance of the few voters who watch debates. They’re able to tell co-workers the next morning what happened and who, in their view, won.
Then there’s the news media’s ripple effect. “Most voters may not be watching the nomination debates,” Mr. McLaughlin says. “But they’re getting their information from the news of the debates.”
And whatever ultimate difference debates make, they hold terror or hope for candidates. A single line or exchange can provide several days’ worth of fodder for talk shows.
What’s more, says pollster John Zogby, such moments of perceived triumph or tragedy for a candidate “give an almost endless supply of video replays” for the news media.
“For front-runners, debates are historically no-win propositions,” says Republican consultant Craig Shirley. “For challengers, who need recognition, debates are almost a no-lose situation. Tonight, Gary Bauer once again will be on the same stage with the governor of Texas.”
Nonetheless, there’s little hard evidence that debates have been crucial in recent elections. Except for Jimmy Carter’s 1976 victory, Mr. Goldstein notes, the person who led in the polls and raised the most money by December went on to win his party’s nomination the following year.
But like most others in the political trade, Mr. Goldstein cannot bring himself to discount other factors than money and polls. “Campaign management, debate performance and advertising matter at the margins, where most elections are won,” he says.
Mr. Goldstein sees nothing much different this time. “Bush is a strong candidate who has run a good campaign but is not yet seen as presidential by the great majority of Americans,” he says.
“People are still willing to vote for Bush and don’t want Gore. But Bush still needs to get that basic level of credibility as president. So far the debates have not helped him reach that,” Mr. Goldstein says.