The first voting of the 2012 presidential election cycle comes Tuesday in Iowa, and the competition only escalates from there.
This nomination cycle has been different from past years in an important and, it seems to me, beneficial way. The eight candidates for the GOP nomination have met in an unprecedented number of debates, giving voters nationwide (not just in Iowa or New Hampshire) a look at the candidates and an opportunity to hear their views and see how they handle questioning. Debating is not managing the government, but the process does give some insight into the candidates' demeanor, intelligence and personalities. Overall, it's been a positive experience for the electorate. Although I have watched only segments of several debates, I have seen enough to form opinions about the candidates. In the 24/7 cable news universe, it has been impossible to escape talk about and analysis of the Republican debates, and that's a good thing. The more voters know about the candidates, the better they will be able to cast wise votes.
There has been another benefit to the increase in debate dates: Candidates have spent less money on campaign advertising. Compared to earlier nomination cycles, campaign spending is way down. Candidates have relied more heavily on what publicists call "free media" — the publicity you don't have to pay for. This should be a plus for voters, who will get more balanced information about candidates from their debates and less misinformation from misleading campaign advertising.
Whoever gets the Republican nomination (and we might know who that will be by the end of this month) should challenge President Obama to a series of debates, similar to the GOP debates we've witnessed through the latter half of 2011. Debates between the presidential nominees have been rare, one to four per election in recent years, and these have mostly been inconclusive debates in which both candidates resolutely sought to avoid mistakes. Ten or 20 debates would serve the electorate better and would reduce the need for campaign advertising. The president will say he doesn't have time for so many debates (no incumbent would admit to having time to spare), but both candidates should make time within their campaign schedule to provide American voters the opportunity to assess the differences between the candidates. If they can't do that, they shouldn't be running.