By the time voters go to the polls in South Carolina on Saturday, the GOP will have held a whopping seventeen debates in this primary season. The debates have proven pivotal—catapulting ephemeral candidates like Herman Cain, subjecting unknown “front-runners” like Rick Perry to actual scrutiny and forcing the media to acknowledge Ron Paul, the Republicans’ most popular alternative to a Romney nomination. In a campaign often dominated by Super PACs, vanity candidates and Colbertish self-parody, the debates have actually managed to take the process off-script. So what have they provided instead?
To take stock of all the debates thus far, The Nation tabulated every question, follow-up and comment by debate moderators—a snapshot of the traditional media’s view of the race—as well as all the answers, rebuttals and assorted claims made by the candidates. Here are the most common words from the moderators:
While both parties say the economy is the top issue this year, the debate moderators also spent a lot of time probing distinctions on healthcare. The most common words turn on the Affordable Care Act—“right” and “state” were often used in discussing healthcare and Romney’s mandate system in Massachusetts (as well as some other contexts), and the language of federalism (“national,” “federal”) was usually pinned to healthcare, as well. The most striking part of the moderators’ script is what’s missing: foreign policy—Iraq and Iran did not come up much over the season—while Obama and Bush do not make the list at all.
By contrast, the candidates proactively brought up Obama a lot. They were happy to go along with the press, however, and leave Bush out of the conversation. (That’s consistent with reports that GOP candidates have mostly excised Bush from their campaign speeches.) Here is the cumulative script for the candidates:
While moderators stuck to the term “jobs” in economic questions, the candidates preferred the colloquial “work,” which was the most used word all season—followed by jobs, right, tax and then Obama.
For all the Frank Luntz wizardry associated with the GOP, the candidates did not settle on any evocative terms for attacking the current administrastion. “Obamacare” was rarely used, and in the most glaring political oversight, they didn’t say “Washington” very often. When you’re the challenger running against a party that controls the White House and Senate, in this economy, and Americans are breaking records for their disapproval of Congress (in the ’80s)—well, “Washington” is a powerful indictment.
After South Carolina, there are two more debates scheduled before the Florida primary at the end of January, and eventually, the Romney campaign will probably have to decide whether to do one-on-one debates with Ron Paul, or argue that there have been more than enough primary debates.
With research by Hannah Murphy