Next Presidential Debate: This Will Be the Best Reality TV on Television

On a New York City public-radio show the day before the second presidential debate of the campaign, John Heilemann of New York Magazine predicted an even bigger viewing audience than those garnered by the first presidential debate and the face-off of the vice presidential candidates. The ratings expectation wasn't that so many of us recognize the  importance of learning about those contending to govern the nation. It was, Heilemann said, because people want to see whether President Obama "can save himself."

I was shocked by the reference to Nielsen ratings, but at first I was baffled by the "save himself" comment. Then my continuing frustration with win/lose evaluations of the election debates and the ever-shifting polls crashed up against another thing that's been making me shake my head, and I realized what Heilemann had suggested: We're coming to think of the steps toward election to govern us as though they were episodes of reality-TV competitions.

Now, let me acknowledge that I'm only a little snobbish about reality TV. I've never watched more than minutes of the grand daddy of them, Survivor, but I'm enough of a Top Chef addict to know how the formula works. I know the "prizes" reviewed in detail at the beginning of each show are all beyond most viewers' comprehension and outside our known lives. That's OK; we're more interested in who will "go home" this week and who else will stab someone else in the back to gain immunity. We may get to vote for a "fan favorite" (normal text-messaging charges apply) or otherwise take some symbolic part, but the real decisions are made by someone else, and we can be sure they're good decisions because of the great and solemn ceremony, with appropriate music and dramatic pauses, with which the decisions are made and announced.

We may or may not pay much attention to the fine-print disclaimer that runs under the closing credits and those last comments from the contestants. It says that the judges have taken into account certain factors aside from the contestants' performance. That means that the real decisions are made by the producers, and they're made on the basis of what makes good TV. We love to shake our heads at the persistence of those backstabbers, especially if they're also a little wacky.

We want to see action, not just skill in a profession we don't really know anything about. Mitt Romney provided much better TV in the first presidential debate, from his demeanor and his energy level to his pop culture reference to Big Bird. President Obama's performance is still, two weeks later, being described as "listless" and "lackluster." At the same time, Vice President Biden has been criticized for showing Romneyesque animation and too many teeth in his debate with Senator Paul Ryan. Maybe there was too much substance behind Biden's grins; it took some thought to figure out what was so amusing. Maybe it's his hair.

The October debates are the "Masters" level of a series that's been running for a year, as we watched the Republican candidates whittle each other down with scathing repartee and charges of lying and conniving. We loved Michelle Bachmann for her wacky and erroneous statements, as well as her eyelashes. We marveled at Newt Gingrich's ability to reinvent his history, running on family values despite multiple marriages. We reveled in Rick Perry's folksy Texan-ness and his toe-in-the-dirt blushes when he went that bit too far. And week by week, we watched them being voted off the dais. We didn't know those primary voters any more than we do the voters on TV competitions. We simply waited to see what they would do next, and who would cry, and who would ultimately be called back to play the runner-up, should the candidate be unable to fulfill his responsibilities. 

Already there's a big difference, though, and it's not just because the final two players go head-to-head three times and proxy-to-proxy once. We listen to the pre-show, the live blogs, and the instant analysis, and we're disappointed if it focuses on the nutritiousness of the dishes instead of the stylishness of the presentation. And then we take another poll, and another and another, so we can speak of "momentum" and "trends," as if the elections were cumulative across the campaign. Can we assume that the winner of two of the three debates will win the election? Not at all. Can the polls not again turn around and send Romney back below the margin of error? Sure.

Something has begun to accumulate now. Early voting has begun. There's no prize for the most active fan. The early votes won't even be tallied until everyone has had their chance, but we act as though the polls are early returns on the election-night special, when the ultimate survivor, or top commander in chief, will be named. At the very least, I'd like to hear the polls reported from here on out with an extra statistic: how many of those polled were indeed giving their final answers. We don't need to know how their votes break down — that would be like calling the election in New York while the vote is continuing in California, and we know that isn't fair.

I don't see the attitude of the electorate changing before this year's show is over. but it might draw us back in a more realistic-reality direction if we knew what percentage of the reported inclination is already cast by mail. For myself, I'll hold off a bit on my support for going to direct election over the Internet, at least until we figure out how voting for a president isn't just a click on a "Like" button.