If you were watching last Saturday’s debates, you might be surprised at the result of this week’s Iowa caucus. With Donald Trump pulling out of the last round of debates, pundits suggested that it would give Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, a chance to cement his status as a new front-runner.
But his performance in the Fox News-Google debate, to put it lightly, was a disaster. Instead of illustrating his dominance, the evening became a chance for the other candidates to dogpile on Cruz. The senator was also forced to respond to recent criticism—from Terry Branstad, the governor of Iowa himself—that he’s “heavily financed by Big Oil.” It was a bad night for Cruz, and viewer polls proved it: A majority of viewers in a Time poll said that Donald Trump won by simply not showing up.
Nevertheless, Ted Cruz eked out a victory in the Hawkeye State—beating Donald Trump by slightly more than three points. The press referred to it as an “upset,” but it should have hardly been a surprise. In recent years, the contest has favored evangelical candidates like former Arkansas governor Mike Huckabee, who won a landslide victory in the state back in 2008. Four years ago, former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum ended in a virtual tie with Mitt Romney, who went on to earn the Republican nomination.
Cruz, a Tea Party favorite, polls strongly with faith-based voters. He was bound to win Iowa anyway—no matter the outcome of Saturday’s debate. Trump’s ongoing feud with Megyn Kelly—following a slew of sexist remarks he’s directed at the Fox News personality—suggested that her participation in the debate was the reason he declined to appear. But that’s disingenuous: Trump played hooky because the Fox News-Google debate didn’t matter—much like the rest of the debates.
Trump’s no-show acknowledged an important truth: While debate season has been an iconic part of American political culture since the first televised showdown between John F. Kennedy and Richard Nixon, these contests have never impacted the race much. After all, Ted Cruz lost the Fox News-Google debate and still won Iowa—as if almost by default—but he remains a long shot in the race. Donald Trump could not show up to every single debate and still win New Hampshire and South Carolina--where he remains heavily favored--by double digits.
Since Kennedy and Nixon squared off in 1960—with JFK famously winning by virtue of his golden tan and air of Hollywood cool—these drawn-out formalities have largely been decided well before the opponents took stage.
According to Gallup data, there were only two instances—1980 and 2000—in the following 11 election cycles that the underdog candidate prior to the debates ended up on top after they were over. In 1980, a comment from the Republican challenger, Ronald Reagan, marked a key turning point for his campaign. While President Jimmy Carter attacked the former governor of California’s record on Medicare, Reagan famously dismissed the criticism: “There you go again.”
Two decades later, an unfortunate gaffe derailed front-runner Al Gore’s bid for the presidency. Following a debate with former Texas governor George Bush, news stations broadcast footage of the then-vice president sighing during a debate on tax cuts for the wealthy. CNN’s Nick Thompson writes, “The clip was played over and over again and lampooned on television, to the point that ‘people began to project onto Gore a personality trait of just annoyance and irritation of people in general,’ according to historian Doris Kearns Goodwin.”
While these game-changing moments define how we remember the campaigns, they are rarely how getting elected really works. According to GQ’s Jason Zengerle, campaigns are won and lost behind closed doors. “The 2016 race is more likely to be decided by what transpires at rich-folks meet-ups like the Koch Brothers' than on any debate stage,” he writes. If anything, debates are about appealing to these donors, the very Big Oil interests Cruz was called out for catering to.
Being on the debate stage may help introduce Americans to lesser-tier candidates like former Ohio governor John Kasich or Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky., but it’s done little to make them competitive. Donald Trump began the debates as the presumptive front-runner, and aside from temporary gains by Ben Carson last November, that is where he has mostly stayed. Despite constant rumors of his demise, polling data averages show Trump has led the pack for nearly six months. According to Real Clear Politics, he’s currently beating Cruz by 16 points.
This is despite the fact that Donald Trump is a lackluster debater—at the very best. The New Yorker’s John Cassidy deftly describes his strategy as such: “He makes a few general comments about making America great again, directs a few mocking comments toward Jeb Bush, retreats into silence whenever a detailed policy discussion gets going, and takes some additional shots at whichever of the other candidates has incurred his ire.”
In each of the debates, Trump rarely fared well. He has been out-matched and out-argued by Cruz, Rubio and Carly Fiorina—who learned firsthand what a fickle friend the debates are. The former Hewlett-Packard CEO was declared the victor of the second presidential contest, hosted by CNN. Fiorina had what looked to be a campaign-defining moment when she answered her own sexist attack from Trump, who had criticized her looks during a Rolling Stone interview. “I think women all over this country heard very clearly what Mr. Trump said,” Fiorina shot back.
Fiorina’s bump in the polls following the debate couldn’t outlast the news cycle. Fiorina peaked at third place in the polls on Sept. 25, just over a week after the CNN contest. But her bronze standing has slowly eroded ever since—to the point that she was stuck at the kids table at this session’s undercard debates. She’s currently polling at just 2 percent.
But no matter how poorly Donald Trump performs in these matchups—or even if he doesn’t show up at all—he keeps leading. That’s because America has changed a lot since an estimated 60 percent of the American public relied on televised debates for information. Today, U.S. News and World Report estimates that just 38 percent of the American public is tuning in. Many of those viewers—who are primarily older voters—already know who they are going to cast a ballot for and are watching to see their candidate win.
That doesn’t mean everyone else is tuning out. If Jason Zengerle argued that the most important conversations are taking place in the mansions of the 1 percent, they are also happening online—with platforms like Twitter and Reddit driving the discussion.
Former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has won or more than held her own in every single Democratic debate thus far, the very definition of a “presidential” showing. Bernie Sanders, meanwhile, has gained significant ground since last August, driven by grassroots support and popularity among liberal political bloggers. Sanders is currently leading in New Hampshire.
Many Democrats have wanted more debates, or at the least, more debates on nights other than Saturday. But it’s telling that the biggest moment of either primary race wasn’t about the debates themselves but a GIF of Sanders reacting to Hillary Clinton with considerable side-eye. The gesture, which quickly went viral on the Internet, summed up the exhaustion not just of some progressives to the presumed front-runner but our toxic relationship with the onslaught of primary season.
During a race in which the debate stage is increasingly crowded with candidates attempting to shout over each other—while saying little—it was what wasn’t said that spoke the loudest.
In the current debate system, everyone is losing.