Though sad for fans of Mike Gravel, Dennis Kucinich, Duncan Hunter, and other no-hopers in the race, the winnowing down of presidential candidates as the primary season progresses is probably good news for fans of TV debates.
Along with its unusually early start, a notable characteristic of the 2008 presidential primary season has been the high number of TV debates, which seem to be held nearly every day on this or that cable channel. In fact, there have been about 20 debates so far for both the Republican and Democratic races - far more than anybody working full-time would be likely to watch.
To some extent, this is a reflection of the fractured TV market. With more cable news channels on air, there are obviously more outlets - and demand - for airing these debates. But debates are good, right? The more the better?
Certainly, the networks are eager to host them, devoting extensive coverage to the debates themselves as well as promoting them heavily before and after. Universities and municipalities that host these debates are also eager participants, viewing them as great publicity as well as a boon for hotels, and other local businesses.
But in the early debates, at least, the viewership is mostly composed of the channels' core audiences, as opposed to a more diverse cross section of the country, says Grassroots Enterprise president and CEO John Hlinko.
"I watched a good chunk of a debate [the other day] on Fox, but I might have been one of three Democrats in America watching," he says. "If you go back 20 years when there were basically three networks, there were a lot fewer debates, but people would watch them. It may mean that it's more important than ever to really appeal to the base, because the base is more likely on both sides to be watching the debates."
Further, there may not be very much nutritive value in them. David Henderson, MD of strategic communications for McGuire- Woods Consulting and a former reporter for CBS News, notes that candidates typically get about a minute to answer a question - not much time to discuss a policy issue in substance, though enough to provide sound bites for promotion.
"The networks will promote [debates] for several days heavily on the air, just like Dancing With the Stars or any other entertainment program - it's the same style as that," Henderson explains. "The debate is really inconsequential because what they'll do is lift various sound snippets out and create them as their own news, [promoting the] debate for several days afterward. From an entertainment standpoint, it's a brilliant concept, but it's terribly contrived."
Certainly, the Internet now provides many new opportunities for people of every party to judge the candidates for themselves, notes Nick Ragone, SVP and director of media at Ketchum.
"With these clips on YouTube, it sort of obviates the need for spin, because viewers can go and view the exchange for themselves," Ragone says. "'Was Hillary Clinton right? Was Barack Obama right?'" You don't really need to wait for Chris Matthews or Tim Russert to tell you what you just saw."
But the debates remain a prime means for voters to directly compare candidates. And as more candidates drop out and definite front-runners emerge, the impact of the debates is likely to grow.
Ragone notes that the recent New Hampshire Democratic debate - when Clinton was asked whether she had sufficient "likability" to win, and Obama called Clinton "likeable enough" - got extensive coverage.
The television debates for the eventual nominees will also likely generate great interest and offer more time for in-depth debate on issues. By then, though, voters will be faced with a choice of either/or, and will perhaps be left with the nagging feeling that, somehow, their sources of television news let them down.