US Voters are disgusted. So why are record numbers watching the debates?


October 16, 2015

WASHINGTON, DC – Tuesday night’s Democratic debate on CNN could have been a ratings disaster.

October 16, 2015

WASHINGTON, DC – Tuesday night’s Democratic debate on CNN could have been a ratings disaster.

Journalists in the debate media filing center watch as Democratic presidential candidate Senator Bernie Sanders speaks during the first official Democratic candidates debate of the 2016 presidential campaign in Las Vegas, Nevada October 13, 2015. REUTERS

There was no Donald Trump, and a big baseball game pitting two blue-state teams against each other was airing on another network.

All the pundits predicted a civil (read: boring) discussion of the issues between four little-known men and a scrupulously rehearsed woman.

Yet 15.8 million households tuned in, according to Nielsen, the TV ratings company, making it the most widely watched Democratic presidential primary debate by a long shot, dwarfed only by the two Trump-infused GOP debates that have taken place this year.

Voters are fed up with Washington and disgusted by politics as usual, and yet by the biggest numbers ever they are tuning in to what has become a must-watch feature of American elections.

The trend hit record highs in 2008 for Democrats, when 10.7 million watched a debate between Sen. Barack Obama and Hillary Rodham Clinton, and millions became addicted to the flurry of GOP debates four years ago that provided many memorable moments.

Now, in the 2016 election cycle, with the addition of a genuine reality-TV star atop the Republican field and an insurgent socialist shaking things up on the Democratic side, viewers are enticed by the spectacle of it all.

“It’s funny, just like watching comedians,” said Tony Nienajadly, 82, of Garfield, N.J., a Democrat who describes a certain schadenfreude in the debates, finding comedy in heated exchanges about a country where so much is going so wrong.

“I get a big laugh out of these people,” he said.

Trump himself trumpeted the idea of his own indispensability — only to be proved wrong.

“I don’t want to say this in a braggadocious way,” he told “Fox and Friends” on the eve of the Democrats’ debate. “But a person at CNN and a couple of other people said: ‘We have to put Donald Trump in this debate. We’re going to die with it.’ ”

Even in his absence, the former host of “The Apprentice” may have actually attracted viewers to the Democrats, said Robert Galinsky, founder of the New York Reality TV School, where he trains potential contestants to succeed on reality TV.

Trump’s entry into the race has introduced “a different kind of debate viewer who is watching the candidates’ behavior,” Galinsky said. “There is some runoff of that audience to the Democratic debate.”

Trump “thought everyone was going to go to sleep and not watch it,” said Andrea Bankhead, 69, a retired teller from Lorraine, Ohio.

Far from it. The registered Democrat said the debate “was great,” providing a satisfactory mix of content and combat. “They got to the issues and took a stab at each other,” she said.

Many viewers came to the debate unhappy with their elected officials. Fully 72 percent of Americans said most people in politics cannot be trusted, according to a September Washington Post-ABC News poll, and 64 percent said the political system is “basically dysfunctional.”

William McInturff, a partner with the Republican polling firm of Public Opinion Strategies, said today’s desire for change “very closely mirrors 2008,” when Obama was ushered into office amid broad discontent with the George W. Bush years. Given the debate numbers, he said, it is “at least an open question whether we are seeing the first really powerful indicator that . . . a very dissatisfied electorate will perform as they have in the past, with a much higher turnout than people imagine.”

The debates haven’t changed Bankhead’s view of Washington. Much of what she appreciated was the spontaneity and theater — a sense of who the politicians are as much as what they said.

“I really liked it when Bernie Sanders said everyone is getting tired of those damn e-mails. We are getting tired of them. . . . The GOP is just trying to attack [Clinton].”

Similarly, Julia Farmer, a Republican voter from Texas, said she tuned in Tuesday night “just for curiosity.” She didn’t find the debate particularly enlightening and said it wouldn’t make her vote for Sanders or Clinton, even though she thought “they both did a good job.”

“I wanted to see what she had to say and what he had to say.” The debate format, she said, helped her “understand what they were about.”

Allen Peacock, 39, a medical sales manager from Richmond, was struck by how much less follow-up there was on social media after the Democrats’ debate. “None of my friends have really commented,” the registered Republican said. “On Facebook, I have seen two or three comments, but far less than what it was during the Republican debates.”

Nienajadly, a Democrat who describes a “civil war” among Republicans in Congress and blames a series of foreign policy disasters on Democrats in power, said the debate season “is like a continuous commercial to make money for the TV and radio stations, like money in the bank.”

And with almost 16 million viewers, the Democratic debate came close to Fox’s popular drama “Empire” (averaging 16.3 million this season).

With Trump onstage, the Republican debates achieved the kinds of ratings NBC gets from “Sunday Night Football” — or that the network used to see in the early days of Trump’s reality show. “The Apprentice” had an average viewership of 20.7 million in its first season in 2004, with more than 28 million people tuning in for the famous finale in the Trump Tower boardroom.

That show set new standards for the kinds of cutthroat competitiveness that people have come to expect from TV — and now look for in the debates, Galinsky said.

“Viewers were asking, ‘Could the Democrats top Trump’s mania?’ ” he said. “Who can top whom? Who can wipe out harder and come back?”

In the spin room, where candidates meet with media immediately after the debate, the usual throng of reporters found itself in competition Tuesday with camera crews from “Extra,” “Inside Edition” and “Funny or Die.” The “Funny or Die” reporter challenged Martin O’Malley to a game of blackjack (which the former Maryland governor declined).

But even in the increasingly unpredictable world of political theater, success depends on adherence to some sound thespian principles.

“Clearly in these debate formats, if you don’t have the baseline script, as some of the lesser-ranked candidates proved [Tuesday] evening, you will not be any good at the improv,” said Paul Tetreault, director of Ford’s Theatre in Washington.

The key? “If the hard script is deep and solid,” Tetreault said, “you can improv and veer any way necessary — or in the case of Mr. Trump, any way you feel like without regard to consequences.”

Courtesy: Washington Post