Wednesday, October 14, 2015

Debate times: why Clinton sucks (up) the most

I admit to being something of a political junkie. As such, I stay on top of what's happening, who's running, what they are saying, and what they are doing. Well, strike that. I used to do all of these things. But the current cycle has me a little jaded. Sure, I know who the candidates are on both sides of the aisle. And I know their basic platforms, their backgrounds, etc. But aside from a couple of running jokes—whom I can't help hearing about every single day—I'm not getting much in the way of differentiating information, especially as concerns candidates who aren't constantly saying outrageous things or who aren't the darlings of liberal intelligentsia.

That's what the debates are for. Or at least that's what they are supposed to be for, theoretically, in the ideal state of election politics.

Last night was the first debate for the Democratic Party. Predictably, the great bulk of today's political stories are opinion pieces—often pretending to be objective evaluations—with regard to who won the debate. By and large, the consensus is that Hillary Clinton won, and did so not only quite handily but also with great aplomb. Dana Milbank's column is as good as any to use as an example: Hillary Clinton towers over her debate rivals. Got that? She didn't just win, she towered over her opponents, Sanders included. From the article:
She parried with relative ease, refusing to allow moderator Anderson Cooper of CNN and her rivals to get under her skin. She scored points on most of the key Democratic issues — paid sick and family leave, equal pay, gun control, Planned Parenthood, executive pay — and she deflected criticism of her changing views on trade and energy, and her response to the Benghazi attack. She turned Cooper’s question about her e-mail into the highlight of the night.
Well, allllright! Who could ask for a better performance than this? America must have been impressed, right? Well, I'm guessing that depends on how many people actually watched. The GOP debate on CNN in September drew some 23 million viewers—hardly a significant percentage of the population, but nonetheless touted as "huge"—while last night's debate almost certainly will end up drawing significantly fewer viwers. There was playoff baseball on, after all. And of course, the Dem debate lacks the "Howard Stern factor."

What I mean by this last is that back in the day, when Howard Stern was becoming insanely popular on the radio, marketing executives discovered a weird anomaly: Stern's audience was not being pushed up by people who loved him as much as it was by people who hated him, or at least by people who wanted to hear him say something over the line so they could be outraged. Rush Limbaugh enjoyed—and still enjoys—this same sort counter-intuitive ratings support, particularly empowered by hardcore leftists from orgs like MediaMatters who hang on his every word.

And what the Republican debate had was Donald Trump, though to be fair his haters exist across the political spectrum, which probably explains the "huge" numbers for the Repub debate. And networks being networks, being concerned with rating above all else, it's fair to suppose that CNN—and Fox before them—would milk the Donald for all he was worth in this regard.

Of course, prior to the actual Republican debates—August 6 on Fox and September 16 on CNN—the moderators promised an even handed approach, as did moderator Anderson Cooper before last night's Dem debate. But come on, how even handed were they really, given a gift like the Donald? Well, let's take a look. Total speaking time per candidate for the August 6 debate (Fox):
Total speaking time per candidate for the September 26 debate (CNN):
You know, that's actually pretty good from a fairness perspective, given Trump's bombastic personality and never-ceasing need to dominate every conversation. Sure, Trump spoke the most, but that's a lot of candidates. The CNN debate was substantially longer, just over three hours as compared to just under two for the one on Fox, and actually included eleven candidates, as compared to the ten on Fox.

Now given the lack of a Trump-style candidate in the Dem debate, I'd expect this same sort of attempt at an even-handed approach. So what were the speaking times last night for the Dem debate? Let's see:
Wait, what? The CNN debate was just under two hours and involve only five candidates, yet Clinton spoke for over a quarter of the total time (remember, the moderator sucks up some the time, as well)? The total speaking time for all five candidates was actually about 96:30 and Clinton took nearly a third of that, with Sanders not far behind. So, almost two thirds of the time was just for the two of them. Compare that to the breakdown of the second Repub debate on CNN. The total speaking time for all candidates was just over two hours—did Tapper really babble for forty minutes?—which means Trump spoke for less than one sixth of the total time. The top four used half of the total time.

I think it's pretty easy to draw some conclusions here: the networks—especially CNN—were very conscious of Trump's tendency to overwhelm, to hog the spotlight, and very much didn't want to seem like they were using Trump to his benefit and theirs (from a ratings/sound bite perspective), and to the detriment of the other candidates and the principle of fairness. But CNN had no such qualms when it came to the Dem debate, with the moderator willingly affording Clinton the lion's share of time (followed closely by Sanders). Why? Simple, they're the clear front-runners in the polls and the self-assured powers that be really don't care a whit about the other candidates. They're on the stage as filler, nothing more,

Which of course robs the debate of its central purpose: an opportunity for all candidates to present themselves and their platforms to the American people (or at least that percentage of the people who actually care). Rather than filling this necessary role, the CNN debate was willingly turned into an extended infomercial for the purposes of allowing Clinton to dig herself out of the hole she is in, to allow a solid round of next-day fanboyism lauding Clinton and the depth of her skills.

Mission accomplished. But yeah, I know, the media isn't really in the tank for Clinton...

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