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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Americans Are Bored by Their Own Elections

Democracy is a curious thing. The presidential television debate between Bob Dole and Bill Clinton was everything that the old Athenians would have relished.


Serious issues of taxes and policies and education programs were discussed by two men who knew their stuff, and treated one another with civility and the audience with respect. They even said how much they liked one another. And everybody was bored stiff.


It was the least-watched presidential debate for a generation, and as the two candidates fenced and parried, the television audience began switching them off in droves.


This is becoming the presidential election that never was. The American media is tuning out the campaign, reporting it at half the intensity of previous election years.


In the first 10 days after the general election campaign really began with Labor Day, there were 23 campaign stories on the front pages of The New York Times, The Washington Post and the Los Angeles Times combined. Four years earlier, in the 1992 campaign, the same three papers produced 48 front-page stories in the same period.


"The main explanation is the lack of perceived drama. It's more exciting to see how the baseball playoffs unfold -- there's more suspense," says James Fallows, the new editor of U.S. News and World Report. "But there is a more serious explanation -- the candidates are as well known as any two candidates as you could find. There is less publicly induced demand for more news about them."


The various media monitoring organizations are starting to cover the very lack of coverage. In the last week, the Los Angeles Times calculated, the nightly news shows of the Big Three television networks -- CBS, NBC and ABC -- produced a total of 40 minutes of campaign coverage. In 1992, in the same week, they offered 89 minutes, and in 1988, they broadcast 94 minutes.


They can hardly be blamed, after the pitifully low audiences which greeted their public-spirited broadcasts of an hour each night of the Democratic and Republican party conventions.


Nor can it be said that this decline in media interest is purely the result of Dole's lackluster campaign and Clinton's consistently awesome lead in the opinion polls since the early summer. This same phenomenon has been marked for the past year, during the Republican primaries and during the period last autumn when Clinton looked very beatable indeed.


With four weeks to go before election day, this is quite unlike any previous presidential election in memory. Even Walter Mondale in 1984 and George McGovern in 1972, to cite two of the better-known landslides, did better than this.


The bizarre ritual of the presidential debates, which over the years have become the most single-watched event in American political life, has degenerated into a gladiatorial event, in which success is defined by a memorable quip, an ill-shaven jaw or a vicious jab known as a "zinger."


The American media, desperate for some energy to be injected into what is becoming an increasingly boring race, have gamely said that Dole scored a modest success by remaining unbowed before the president's Oxford-honed debating skills. True, but what they mean is that there was no blood on the floor -- and the Clinton lead remains close to 20 percentage points.