Are Debates Hurting the Republican Candidates?

So far, the Republican Party has held 11 presidential debates, and between audience cheering for the death penalty, attacks on gay soldiers, or huge candidate gaffes, each debate has shown the GOP candidates in one unflattering light or the other. With 14 more debates to go, The New York Times reports some Republican elites are worried about the effect they could have on public perception.

“This is the core of the Republican brand. You mess with it at your peril,” said Peter Feaver, a national security official under President George W. Bush. He compared the foreign policy flubs to reports about safety problems in Toyota vehicles.

“The whole reason you bought a Toyota was so that you didn’t have those problems,” he said. “It cuts directly to the essence of the brand. Republicans should be concerned about this.”

It’s hard to say how much effect these debates have had on the public’s perception of the Republican presidential candidates. It’s certainly true that primary debates can change voter preferences and influence how voters see a given candidate, but the effect isn’t huge. After all, the decision-making process for primary voters depends on a lot more than debate performance. Still, for this cycle, there’s some evidence to suggest that the debates are having a larger-than-usual effect. Thanks to his weakness in the debates, Texas Governor Rick Perry has fallen from the top tier of presidential candidates to the bottom of the pack, and former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney has improved his standing through a consistent set of solid performances.

What’s more, as per the worries of Republican elites, it’s possible that the debates have made an impression outside of the GOP. In the last two months, Republicans have held five debates, with an average viewership of 4.34 million. At the same time, President Obama moved back to even against a generic Republican in Gallup’s poll of voters, and opened a lead against each of the Republican candidates in Public Policy Polling’s most recent survey.

Of course, this is conjecture -– there’s zero proof of any relationship between the frequency and popularity of the Republican presidential debates, and Obama’s improved performance in early election polls (which should be taken with a grain of salt). That said, with the intense media coverage of the Republican candidates –- driven, in part, by the debates –- it’s not hard to imagine that voters are simply turned off by the circus of the GOP nomination contest.