U.S. Presidential Primaries and the Caucus-Convention System: A Sourcebook

By James W. Davis | Go to book overview
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visive"--proved to be a serious miscalculation by his strategists. This tactical mistake quickly became obvious when Reagan lost to George Bush in Iowa. Consequently, Reagan quickly reversed himself and announced that he would debate his rivals in the New Hampshire primary.

Fifth, recent shifts in TV and radio talk show programming may have relegated presidential primary debates to a lesser role in future nominating campaigns. Larry King Live, Donahue, Good Morning America, and similar types of talk shows and entertainment programs offer more exciting one-on-one opportunities for presidential candidates to reach huge audiences without most of the risk of facing unanticipated debate questions. Also, the candidate on a talk show is less likely to alienate rival contenders than during the primary debates. H. Ross Perot, the Texas billionaire, demonstrated in 1992 how easy it was to use the TV talk show format to circumvent the regular political process of debates, nominating conventions, and traditional campaigning to become a serious contender for the presidency.

And sixth, presidential primary debates also help leading contenders hone and polish their debating skills for the general election campaign--if they win the nomination. Candidates who have undergone the fire of primary debates are more likely to make formidable opponents in the fall presidential election. Indeed, in the 1992 general election campaign, President Bush's managers publicly conceded that he would be at a considerable disadvantage in debating Democrat Bill Clinton whose forensic skills were highly rated.


Presidential primary debates can sometimes be a decisive turning point in the nominating race. Indeed, Ronald Reagan's "I paid for this microphone" histrionics in the famous 1980 New Hampshire debate helped carry him to victory in the Granite State and subsequently to the nomination and the White House.

James W. Davis, Presidential Primaries: Road to the White House ( New York: Thomas Y. Crowell, 1967), pp. 58-59.
Charles A. H. Thomson and Frances M. Shattuck, The 1956 Presidential Campaign ( Washington, D.C.: Brookings Institution, 1960), pp. 54-56.
Theodore H. White, The Making of the President, 1960 ( New York: Atheneum, 1961), p. 109. Because both Kennedy and Humphrey focused heavily on the merits of Democratic party proposals, the GOP national chairman demanded "equal time," arguing that the so-called "debate" merely helped the Democrats advertise their positions. In his opinion, the joint appearance had "all the sharpness


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