The first Republican presidential debate was feisty and substantive, because Fox News overwhelmingly focused on policy issues that voters care about. A debate was seriously overdue, because the television networks have shut out coverage of policy issues like they were protecting the public from a deadly plague.
Even so, the same journalists who uncork grand proclamations about how democracy is precious seem to suggest this debate was a waste of time. Donald Trump is so far ahead in very premature polling, why bother? This neatly lines up with Team Trump’s talking points.
Take USA Today’s Susan Page, claiming “It was as though most of the other contenders were living in an alternative universe, one in which Trump didn't command a lead of more than 40 percentage points in the Republican race,” meaning the Real Clear Politics average of national polls.
An alternative universe? As if pretending there were no other contenders doesn’t sound like an alternative universe?
On ABC, Jonathan Karl similarly summarized the candidate event: “we got to see a world, maybe it's a fantasy land. We got to see a world where Donald Trump was not a candidate, for a moment.” Karl said it was a lively and substantive debate, but a fantasy: “and then you realize, we don't live in that world.”
On CBS, John Dickerson asserted the debate “felt like a job interview in which there is already an internal candidate...In other words, the interviews take place, all the motions are gone through, but the person’s already been picked.”
Journalists are saying the quiet part out loud. But that’s simply not true. In the NBC/Des Moines Register poll of Iowa voters, 52 percent of likely GOP caucus goers have a first choice for president and say they could still be persuaded to support a different candidate. In other words, the incumbent may have the upper hand, but there’s a lot of room for debates.
Trump is leading Ron DeSantis in that NBC poll by 42 percent to 19. Eight years ago, a CNN poll in mid-August showed Trump leading Jeb Bush by 24 points to 13.
If journalists really cared about democracy and voting, they wouldn’t be so mercilessly quick to declare everyone except Trump is toast. If they all think Trump is “dangerous to democracy,” as CBS morning co-host Tony Dokoupil insisted to Nikki Haley, why do they sound like debates (with or without Trump) are beside the point?
All this premature speculation feels like NFL football writers deciding who has won the Super Bowl before the preseason is over. If journalists actually respected the will of the people, they would wait and let the actual primary elections happen before they imply the primary elections are pointless.
In a New York Times podcast on the “sputtering” DeSantis campaign before the debate, reporter Shane Goldmacher interviewed voters and seemed a bit surprised: “A lot of these people were just barely beginning their understanding of these candidates. And a lot of them were just interested in learning more. I mean, the thing about talking to voters at this stage of a race is you’re reminded how early it is.”
Debate season is when voters are just starting to pay attention and the “pro-democracy” press is suggesting it’s a “fantasyland” that these people might form an opinion outside the current “wisdom.”
Maybe Trump's indictment-enhanced advantage will remain. But it would be nice if journalists could be humble enough to let the process play out throughout this year without slamming the fast-forward button.