|Republican candidates debate on August 6|
By Dr. Jay Wendland, Assistant Professor of Political Science
Most elections scholars are in agreement that presidential debates do little to get people to come out and vote if they were not already planning on voting. They also agree that debates do little to change people’s minds about who they were already planning on voting for. Rather, debates appear to reinforce the choices voters have already made. However, at the presidential nominating stage, debates become much more important. At the nomination stage we see an intraparty debate rather than an interparty debate. Republicans are taking on other Republicans and Democrats are taking on fellow Democrats. This means that they cannot simply rely on their partisan preferences to decide how they should vote. Many Americans will vote based on their own personal party identification. Nominating contests make this impossible, so American voters need to find another way to determine how to cast their ballot. This is why debates are a great venue for voter learning. Debates allow voters to view all of the candidates running for nomination on one stage, answering questions about their beliefs, policy stances, and experience.
On August 6, roughly 16 percent of American households tuned in to watch the first Republican debate on Fox News Channel. While this may not seem like a large percentage, nomination debates generally draw a crowd of roughly 5 percent of American households and Fox News usually attracts between 1 and 2 percent of American households on an average night. So, overall, this debate drew in a large audience. While some of these viewers were certainly tuning in to see what Donald Trump would say and how he would behave in a debate setting, they still tuned in and heard what the other candidates had to say. Tuning in and listening to what candidates have to say is a great way for voters to learn about the current candidates running for office. Right now, 17 Republicans are running for their party’s nomination. If you are trying to decide which of these 17 candidates to vote for, finding time to do your own research into all of them can seem overwhelming. Tuning in to a debate allows you to view all of the candidates and hear where they stand on the issues you care about.
Now, for this first debate, if you wanted to learn about all 17 candidates you would have needed to watch two debates. Because of the large number of candidates running, Fox News decided to hold two debates: one during primetime and one a few hours earlier (dubbed by media pundits as the ‘happy hour debate’). The primetime debate featured the top 10 candidates according to national poll averages and included: Donald Trump, Jeb Bush, Scott Walker, Mike Huckabee, Ben Carson, Ted Cruz, Rand Paul, Marco Rubio, Chris Christie, and John Kasich. The Happy Hour debate featured the remaining candidates and included: Carly Fiorina, Rick Santorum, Lindsey Graham, James Gilmore, Bobby Jindal, Rick Perry, and George Pataki. In this instance, learning about all 17 candidates required a bigger time commitment than usual, but it was still an excellent opportunity for voters to get a glimpse of all candidates running for the Republican nomination.
I would encourage everyone to tune in to the remaining debates—both Republican and Democratic—in an effort to continue learning about the potential nominees. It is important to tune in to both parties’ debates, as it is important to be informed on all candidates running for president. One of the two nominees will become the next president and lead the United States for the next four years. For those interested in tuning in to the remaining debates, here is when they will be airing (note: all start times are still to be determined):
Republican Debates: Democratic Debates:
September 16 October 13
October 28 November 14
November* December 19
December 15 January 17
December 19 February*
March 10 *Debate sponsor has not yet named a specific date