It’s easy to forget that the 20 televised debates that have aired since May last year—with more on the way—have been anything more than a bad reality TV show. This weekend’s debates in Concord and Manchester, New Hampshire saw Republican candidates trade insults worthy of sleep-deprived Big Brother contestants, as Newt Gingrich accused Mitt Romney of talking “pious baloney” while Ron Paul called the former Speaker, who did not serve in Vietnam, a “chicken hawk.”
Unapologetically entertaining though they may be, these debates precede the first truly significant event of the election season: the New Hampshire primary. Iowa’s caucuses last week were a form of pre-show, since while the results may have some influence down the line, the state is not obliged to nominate the winner at the party’s convention, where the Republican presidential candidate will eventually be decided. The New Hampshire results, on the other hand, are binding.
The New Hampshire primary is not only the first in the election cycle; historically, it’s been a bellwether state. Presidents George HW Bush, Ronald Reagan, Jimmy Carter, Richard Nixon and John F Kennedy all won in New Hampshire before going on to become president. But the past three presidents—Bill Clinton, George W Bush and Barack Obama—finished second in the New England state’s primary.
Given media saturation in recent presidential elections, it is difficult to say what has the most influence: the results of early primaries, or the hype surrounding them. The answer to this question, it seems, is that one influences the other. In other words, the winner of the New Hampshire debate may have a good chance of winning the primary, but the inflated media coverage they’ll receive following that win is almost guaranteed to boost their results in future elections—which could be good or bad.
Rick Santorum, for example, unexpectedly gained a huge turnout in Iowa, placing him only eight votes behind Mitt Romney in the caucus. Since then, Santorum, who up to that point had been all but ignored by the media (with one notable exception), has become the subject of countless op-eds. In the last week, the candidate’s extreme stances on social issues, from arguing against abortion under any circumstance to comparing same-sex marriage with polygamy, bestiality and paedophilia, have not gone…