Survivor, Republican Style

Article excerpt

Byline: Andrew Romano

The GOP's royalty hates the party's many debates. They're wrong. Why the party desperately needs them.

It has become trendy, in recent weeks, to dis this year's Republican presidential debates--especially if you're a Republican. Karl Rove, for one, has carped that they've "nearly crippled campaigns." John McCain has gone further: "We've got to stop the debates!" he barked last month. Even Chris Wallace, the Fox News anchor, has piled on, despite having moderated four of the things himself. "It is ridiculous how many debates there have been," Wallace opined, adding that at this point people tune in only "to see if there's going to be a wreck."

The conservative complaint is that after 19 installments--with the 20th set to air Feb. 22 on CNN--the only thing the debates are doing is "driving up our candidates', all of them, unfavorabilities," as McCain has put it. The shows have been too much Survivor, they whine, and too little West Wing. Meanwhile, the Dems are looking on, licking their chops.

But this seems shortsighted. One could argue, in fact, that the reality-TV-ification of the Republican contest will benefit the Republicans as much as (if not more than) the Democrats. By helping to winnow the field American Idol style, the theory goes, the 2012 debates may eventually do what no primary, caucus, or party leader has so far been able to do: unite the fractured GOP around a credible nominee.

To understand why, it's important to learn a bit about the concept of common knowledge. Sometimes taking action requires knowing that other people know what you know (and that they know that you know). This is what UCLA economist Michael Chwe calls a "coordination problem"; a couple can't really be married, for example, unless other people recognize them as a couple. Hence the wedding ceremony.

According to Chwe, the debates have served a similar purpose for the Republican Party. "What happens at a debate is 'common knowledge,'?" he says. "Someone viewing the debate not only sees the candidates herself, she also knows that many other people are seeing the same thing. So if I see Perry debate poorly, that affects not just my own opinion of Perry but also my opinion about whether others will vote for him. In a situation like the GOP primaries in which each person wants to do the same thing as everyone else"--choose a nominee--"common-knowledge events are particularly powerful. …