Tonight's debate: Lions, tigers and bears — or elephants vs. donkeys

Is this a little preview of Monday night's debate between Mitt Romney and President Obama? The two meet in Boca Raton, Fla., to tackle foreign policy in their final matchup.
Is this a little preview of Monday night's debate between Mitt Romney and President Obama? The two meet in Boca Raton, Fla., to tackle foreign policy in their final matchup. (ASSOCIATED PRESS)
Posted: October 23, 2012

It's Elephants-Donkeys vs. Bears-Lions and Cardinals-Giants. A battle royal!

The third and final presidential debate tonight goes up against heavy TV competition: not only Monday Night Football, in which the Chicago Bears face off against the Detroit Lions, but also the seventh and deciding game of the National League Championship Series between baseball's San Francisco Giants and St. Louis Cardinals. A Game Seven is big: It determines who goes to the World Series to play the Detroit Tigers.

Lions and tigers and bears.

The first two debates drew huge TV audiences that led TV, or any medium, on their respective nights. About 67.2 million watched the first one, according to the Nielsen counters, and 65.6 million watched the second. For comparison, the Oct. 12 Monday Night Football game, a real corker between the Denver Broncos and the San Diego Chargers, netted ESPN 12.8 million viewers, only OK by historical standards. Game 6 of the MLB playoffs on Sunday drew Fox around 6 million.

So will tonight's draw now suffer, and if so, who's likely to watch sports instead of politico-zinger-ology? And what difference might it make?

(One difference is clear already: the Fox broadcast network, which carries the Major League Baseball playoffs, won't be carrying the debate, so its very loyal audience will have to turn to other sources - or, if baseball fans, not. Fox News on cable will have the debate and all the fixin's.)

TV, while declining in importance, is still crucial in politics. The older you are, the more likely you are to vote. And more likely to spend your media time watching TV, rather than getting your news on, say, mobile phones. Consider the first debate: Nielsen says more than 30 million people, almost half of all viewers, were older than 55. That compares with 20 million between 35 and 54, and less than 20 million younger than 35.

The games are very likely to draw eyeballs away from Romney-Obama, according to Michael Serazio, assistant professor of communication at Fairfield University, who says by e-mail: "Sports (and debates, it turns out, evidenced by this year's ratings) remains one of the few TV genres that can reliably draw appointment viewing from live audiences at a time when seemingly all else can and will be time-shifted - it's also one of the reasons that sports can still command huge commercial revenues."

As a 2009 Scarborough Sports Marketing Survey found, fans of both Major League Baseball (58.8 percent) and the National Football league (58.7 percent) are, unsurprisingly, mostly white and male, although these, of all sports, also attract the highest proportion of female viewers (41.2 percent and 41.3 percent, respectively).

Sports fans trend a little older and center-right. A much-viewed National Media Inc. survey, conducted via Arbitron and Nielsen from August 2008 to September 2009, found that MLB and NFL fans are only a little to the right of center - but they're more likely to vote than the average sports fan. (Basketball fans, well to the left, are much less likely to vote.)

Nick Roman, managing editor at radio station KPPC in Los Angeles, and a big fan of battles both sporting and political, says (via Twitter) that, first of all, the chosen subject of this debate - foreign policy - is a snoozer. So those big games will indeed "siphon away viewers, listeners." These sports diehards will take the lazy way to decide the debate, in Roman's view: "Most hear wrapup 2nd-hand, think 'My guy won!' "

Here's something else: Sports fans watch live. They don't prefer recorded sports. Even if they are political firebrands, millions and millions will watch balls, both base- and foot-, in the air tonight live, not Mitt and Barack.

Serazio points out that you can't really flip to and and from a debate. You have to stay with it: "Debates lend themselves less well to catching snippets than does highlights from the big game. You can't tune in late or halfway through to a debate and 'catch the score' quite so quickly and definitively (body language and eye-rolling notwithstanding)."

Bottom line: Those who ditch policy for punts and pitches, mics for hikes and strikes, are likely to skew older, male, likely voters. All three groups have trended GOP lately. If tonight's debate really is a knockout for one man or the other, these millions may not see it.

Richard Thaler, University of Chicago professor of behavioral science and economics, thinks that, if a more-female audience is left watching the debate, "that should help O[bama] since most watchers will think their candidate won."

But then, those viewers are also the base. They may watch Lions-Bears-Giants-Cards rather than Elephants-Donkeys because they already know whom they're voting for.

Contact John Timpane at, 215-854-4406, or on Twitter: @jtimpane.

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