There is an idea floating around that the Democratic primary debate schedule is deliberately designed to prevent anyone from realistically challenging Hillary Clinton for the nomination. The number of debates is relatively small, and debates have been scheduled at times of poor television viewership. This is in clear opposition to the Republican debate schedule which has more events and is scheduled at more favorable times.
I don’t have the tools to decide if this is a deliberate effort on the part of the DNC, but I can try to measure what effect the different debate schedules have had on the candidates opportunity to present their views.
Debate Number and Timeslots
Most obviously, the Democrats have 6 debates scheduled, and the Republicans have 13. 13 is more than 6. But that’s a pretty simplistic analysis. Much of the discussion in the media has centered on when the debates are scheduled. The Democrats have a Tuesday, a Wednesday, a Thursday, two Saturdays, and a Sunday. Weeknights typically have higher TV viewership than Saturdays, but Sunday is often better still (the Sunday in question is after a long weekend, however, which may make it less ideal.) Republicans have two Tuesdays, two Wednesdays, four Thursdays, a Friday, and two Saturdays (and one unscheduled but planned debate).
So, the Republicans three of twelve badly scheduled debates is less than the Democrats two of six. If the Sunday debate is in a ratings hole, the Republicans clearly scheduled better. If it is a bright spot, they may be equivalent. It’s hard to say right now, but time will tell. In any case, the Democrats aren’t winning back any points the lost in the number by the scheduling.
However, there is one place where the Democratic debates are doing a much better job than the Republicans, which is giving plenty of time to each candidate. In the first Republican debate, only Trump edged out ten minutes of speaking time, whereas Hillary Clinton had over half an hour in the Democratic debate, and Bernie Sanders nearly so. This trend has continued over the debates so far.
Now, this is obviously because there are far fewer Democratic candidates than Republican ones. But that fact was at least somewhat known when the debate schedules were designed, so it can’t be ignored.
To combine these various factors into a measurement of how helpful the debates have been in allowing a candidate to express their views, I will create a new number; the eyeball-minute. One eyeball-minute represents the attention of one debate viewer for one minute of speaking time. Actually, it represents one million debate viewers for one minute, for ease of calculation.
So, by combining the published television ratings for the debates with compiled lists of speaking times, I can calculate a sum total number of eyeball-minutes that each candidate has earned in the debates so far. This uses the average television rating of each debate, where I could find it, and the peak rating where I could not. It includes both main and secondary debates on the Republican side, but only for those candidates who have qualified for at least one main debate.
- Donald Trump (R) – 1212
- Hillary Clinton (D) – 1059
- Ted Cruz (R) – 984
- Jeb Bush (R) – 959
- Marco Rubio (R) – 934
- Ben Carson (R) – 865
- Bernie Sanders (D) – 839
- John Kasich (R) – 826
- Carly Fiorina* (R) -821
- Chris Christie* (R) – 798
- Ron Paul (R) – 767
- Martin O’Malley (D) – 619
- Mike Huckabee* (R) – 585
- Scott Walker** (R) – 334
- Jim Webb** (D) – 239
- Lincoln Chafee** (D) – 141
A single asterisk means that the candidate participated in at least one secondary debate, and a double asterisk indicates that the candidate withdrew from the race and so missed subsequent debates.
Returning to our original question, Bernie Sanders collection of 839 eyeball-minutes places him in an equivalent position to the majority of the Republican field. Martin O’Malley’s 619 is lower, but not catastrophically so.
The eyeball-minute may not be the best measure of debate impact, but it has the advantage of being objectively measurable, and by that measure, the Democratic debates are by and large just as effective candidate message platforms as the Republican debates.
There are many debates to come, and I will hopefully return to check on these numbers again.