Do Presidential Primary Debate Moderators, Venues Signal a Shift in Early States' Roles?

Dec 15, 2015

Credit GIF created using footage from CNN

 It's been a recurring theme throughout this year's presidential primary race: Early states (like New Hampshire) are losing their clout as candidates run what are essentially nationwide campaign.

There were the concerns over a potential shakeup in the nominating calendar. There was uproar over the use of national poll numbers to determine who’s on stage during Republican debates. More uproar over the limited number of debates among the Democratic candidates.

But in a recent column for the Boston Globe, reporter James Pindell points out another way in which Iowa, New Hampshire, South Carolina and Nevada could be losing their collective influence: “Even though each early state was awarded a debate, there is no longer a local debate moderator to provide local context.” The extension of debates into swing-state territory like Colorado, Ohio and Wisconsin also underscores a shift in the early states’ importance, Pindell suggests.

As Pindell notes, local reporters did participate in the Democratic debate in Iowa last month. While CBS News’s John Dickerson was the lead moderator, journalists from the CBS affiliate station in Des Moines and The Des Moines Register also got a chance to ask a few questions.

Originally, the Democrats’ Dec. 19 debate in New Hampshire was on track to include a local voice from WMUR-TV — political director Josh McElveen — alongside journalists from ABC News.

But those plans have since changed. An unresolved labor dispute involving the pensions of about a dozen WMUR employees prompted Democratic Party officials to cut ties with the local station last week. And, according to Pindell, it’s looking unlikely that another local reporter will take McElveen’s place.

On the Republican side, the debates so far have similarly been dominated by journalists from national news outlets: Fox News, CNN and CNBC, among others. At the same time, the both parties have turned to “new media” partnerships with sites like Twitter, Facebook and IJ Review (a self-described “social-first news company”) to build buzz around the forums.

With this in mind, what’s a state like New Hampshire to do to stay relevant?

“If early states activists want to keep getting good tickets to the national show, they must make sure they are willing to be interviewed in front of a picturesque ‘real America’ background. They must make sure cell services is available around the state,” Pindell suggests. “Lastly, it would be really great if they voted in a way that created a plot twist.”

Not too add too much extra pressure or anything when you head to the polls.