It is 9 PM on August 6, 2015, and 24 million people are tuning in to an event that will be the ninth most-watched show ever on cable.
It is the beginning of the first Republican primary debate.
The explosion of interest in the primary debates during the run-up to the 2016 election has been, by any metric, astonishing. Debates held at similar points in the 2012 election season drew audiences that barely registered by comparison, with most in the range of two to four million viewers each. Today’s debates are drawing up to ten times those numbers. No one cared about the primary debates in 2011. What changed?
There is one obvious difference: The Donald. In 2011, Mitt Romney was generating almost negative excitement, to the point where GOP voters burned through a succession of unqualified or ill-prepared candidates in a hunt not to nominate him. In 2015, the Republican frontrunner is a reality TV star, constantly generating headlines and attracting ire with his uncensored and off-the-cuff remarks.
“Donald Trump has just brought a level of celebrity to the primary that usually isn’t there,” Micah Cohen, political editor at FiveThirtyEight, told The Politic.
Trump’s fame, along with his incendiary statements disparaging Mexicans, women, and prisoners of war, among others, has created a spotlight on the primaries where previously there had been a blackout. This is no small part due to how he has campaigned, relying on showmanship and effrontery more than specific plans. Trip Gabriel of The New York Times has suggested that Trump may even be the first post-policy candidate. Trump’s disregard for what he feels is politically correct and his willingness to venture rhetorically where other politicians do not dare has created a media frenzy, attracting the attention of citizens who typically would not yet be interested in the election.
“Trump has gotten more people to pay attention earlier than they otherwise would have,” Cohen said, “and this affects the Democratic race, too.”
The media’s focus on the real estate magnate has been inescapable to some degree, and not only to Republicans. There is a spillover effect in that Trump’s presence has put the primary process at center stage, and interest is growing on both sides of the aisle.
Democrats also a populist, self-styled outsider candidate generating unusual political engagement of their own. Senator Bernie Sanders of Vermont identifies as a democratic socialist and is already drawing huge crowds at rallies. While Hillary Clinton launched her campaign to a crowd of 5,500 people, Sanders has repeatedly drawn over 25,000 supporters to his events.
Mike McCurry, Co-Chair of the Commission on Presidential Debates and former White House Press Secretary under Bill Clinton, spoke to The Politic about why people are flocking to atypical candidates such as Trump and Sanders.
“There is broad-scale dissatisfaction with our political system,” he said. “Most people have not seen any growth in their wage income for two decades. People feel like they’re working hard and not getting ahead.”
McCurry said that anti-establishment candidates can ride the wave of public disgust toward what is seen as an ineffective government. “It has given an advantage to candidates who are unorthodox and who look like they come from outside the political system.” Of Trump, Ben Carson, and Carly Fiorina, none have held national or state political office before. Together, however, they hold a majority of Republican voters’ support. “They get more attention because they look like they are outside the conventional political process.”
The unusual openness of the nomination may also be a factor. As FiveThirtyEight.com has noted, establishment consensus, as measured through endorsements, is far lower this cycle than in years past. This has encouraged more politicians to jump into the fray than ever before. Bret Baier, chief political anchor for Fox News and one of the moderators for the first Republican primary debate, spoke to The Politic about the relevance of the up-for-grabs atmosphere pervading the current nomination processes. He discussed the impact of so many diverse nominees, saying, “The people running are intriguing characters, and they get a lot of attention outside the political world.” Baier also noted the spectacle simply of the unprecedented size of the field. “I’ve never seen an election on the Republican side like this before. So many different candidates with so many different backgrounds. It’s definitely not like anything anyone has seen before.”
The newfound luster of the primary debates has not escaped the notice of various political groups at Yale, some of whom have created events based around the debates. The Independent Party held a Republican debate watch party in mid-September that drew an audience from across the political spectrum and another for the Democratic debate in mid-October. The Yale College Democrats partnered with Yale Students for Bernie and Yale Students for Hillary to host a watch party in Calhoun College for the first Democratic debate, and there are plans for more in the months to come.
Hedy Gutfreund, Communications Director for the Yale College Democrats, spoke to The Politic about the importance of the debates in energizing students and all citizens for the election season at hand. “We want to get the excitement going for the 2016 general election,” Gutfruend said. “At our watch party, there was a lot of excitement for both [Sanders and Clinton], and that excitement is definitely channeling into activism.”
Campus groups are using the debates as entry points for students who might not otherwise be politically active. Yale Students for Bernie used the watch party to recruit people for a phone-banking session held afterwards, and Yale Students for Hillary used it to sign people up for a canvassing trip to New Hampshire. The watch parties can introduce opportunities for becoming involved in politics to students who otherwise might not have known about them.
Emaline Kelso, the Chair of the Liberal Party in the Yale Political Union and a leader of Yale Students for Bernie, discussed with The Politic how the debates can serve as platforms to increase awareness of the political climate on campus.
“Sometimes students on campus who don’t come in with a strong interest in politics end up finding fewer opportunities to participate in political conversations. You can use the presidential campaign as a starting point for deeper conversations.”
Kelso spoke about using interest in the debates to open a community dialogue that moves past the showy quality of the debates and exposes more students to the substantive policy arguments behind them. The easiest way to spark this, she said, is through watch parties.
“My hope would be to turn those events into more focused conversations on the issues that came up. Have a focused discussion about gun control, about climate change, about foreign policy,” she explained.
The debates can be a beginning for not only policy discussions but for practical change, as well. Scott Remer, the head of Yale Students for Bernie, is concerned with how the unusual and possibly fleeting interest in the debates could be harnessed to create a more long term coalition.
“The Democratic debates are an opportunity for people who haven’t heard Bernie’s view to familiarize themselves with his message,” Remer said, but he is pushing for more than one election cycle. “We view this campaign not so much about a candidate as much as building a grassroots movement. We’re hoping to turn the interest people have into more sustained political engagement.” He would like to see people attracted to the debates become increasingly involved with phone banking, or canvassing, or attending talks on public policy. “The hope is to get people excited about politics again, to get people to feel like their actions can actually change things.”
But whether or not interest in the debates will translate into increased civic engagement in practice will be decided by the candidates, McCurry said. “It depends on whether people think the political system is responding to their anxiety and frustration. So far, there is a pretty excited, dynamic electorate that wants to be engaged.” If candidates fail to address voters’ concerns, he continued, there could be a slippage in engagement. McCurry pointed to low youth involvement, mentioning that young people are less involved because fewer issues brought up during the campaign seem to make a difference in their lives.
“The debate is about Social Security benefits and Medicare and retirement issues. If no one is talking about job opportunities, paying for college, how to land a job when I get out of high school, then the interest among younger voters begins to subside,” he said. The reason behind high youth interest in the debate and election overall is that candidates like Clinton, Rubio, and Sanders are addressing some of these issues right now.
McCurry added that another factor playing into high ratings is the civil war occurring in the GOP, which makes for entertaining television. It has pitted many men publicly against each other who now occupy the same stage.
“The Republican Party is trying to figure out what its identity is in front of the American public,” McCurry noted.
Fortunately or unfortunately for the GOP, that public is watching.