Once, they were few and far between, but now presidential election debates happen with about the same frequency as a prime-time series. They're similar in fabric, too, sharing some of the same elements of a scripted show: dramatics, distinct personalities and a dose of vitriol.
The frequent debates and town halls may be behind the rise of more divisive politicians such as Republican front-runner Donald Trump and Democratic candidate Sen. Bernie Sanders. Instead of focusing on policy, experts say voters have turned their attention to the candidates' character and personality. A new study based on game theory published Wednesday in the American Economic Journal found that oversaturated coverage leads voters to select more "extreme" candidates. If all of the candidates have to some degree the same position, the one who presents a more aggressive stance can pull more voters.
There are a staggering 13 sanctioned debates on the Republican primary calendar this year, fewer than in 2012, but still too many, experts said. It's a more packed schedule than when debates became a staple of the presidential campaign in 1976; and past election seasons had more room for focus on policy.
"In the past, candidates had to be more moderate than other candidates to appeal to swing voters," said Christopher Cotton, a professor at Queens University in Ontario who co-authored the study. "With more debates and coverage, I think that the election is changing and what we have now is a situation where you can get away with doing a lot less appealing to voters on policy, and instead benefiting off of other dimensions."
All the fighting in CNN debate makes hard to focus on issues. This is tragic. Repeat of 2012. Too many debates=destruction GOP brand.
— Crystal Wright (@GOPBlackChick) February 26, 2016
In the 2016 cycle, Cotton said this can mean characteristics such as showmanship, anti-establishment appeal and quick thinking. "Voters are basing their decisions more on the impressions," Cotton said. "The more often the voters are going to see these people on TV, the more likely one is to stand out as a much better speaker, while another looks like a bumbling buffoon."
Sanders and Trump, who both claim to be leading new political movements, have appeared benefited from the ample coverage, experts said. Trump's swagger behind the podium has appealed to supporters, and Sanders has helped himself through his impassioned calls onstage for revolution. Although the Vermont senator has been in politics for more than 25 years, he was relatively unknown until his rallies and debate performances.
"The environment does play a major role in the way people look for their leaders," said Patrick Stewart, a political science professor at the University of Arkansas in Fayetteville. "Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders are able to use anger verbally and nonverbally, and at the status quo, appearing dominant. Trump looks like a prototypical dominant leader. He has a square face, broad torso and athletic body."
The Republican National Committee made a conscious decision to downsize this cycle from the 23 debates scheduled in the 2012 election. The trimming of the calendar came after RNC Chairman Reince Priebus called the 2012 primary debate schedule "ridiculous," and blamed the forum battles for the presidential election loss.
"I mean if you have 10 candidates and nine out of 10 raise their hand and say I'm going to any two-hour block offered, well then you have a debate every three days and you're the only show in town," Priebus said in 2013. "So while we were playing footsie debating each other 23 times, what was the other side doing? They were spending potentially hundreds of millions of dollars on data, technology, voter outreach. They were actually getting the job done."
The RNC may have shaved the debate schedule, but more people are paying attention this year, largely owing to the interest in Trump. The first GOP debate, hosted by Fox in August, drew more than 24 million viewers, making it the highest-rated primary debate in television history.
"The debates have played a hugely important role because so many people are watching them," Stewart said. "Even the less-watched debates are watched by more people than primary debates in previous election cycles. The networks are the ones who benefit from putting the situations where they put the candidates in conflict. Politics is the ultimate reality television show."
As Trump insulted his way to the front of the GOP pack, rivals Ben Carson, John Kasich and Jeb Bush were criticized this campaign season for lifeless debate performances, prompting Bush and Carson to eventually bow out, while Kasich has struggled to win over voters.
The influence of the debates may have played a role in the Democratic primary debate calendar, which raised eyebrows with its showdowns scheduled in graveyard slots. The Democratic National Committee has sanctioned 11 primary debates for this election season. While the GOP candidates participated in five debates in 2015, the Democrats had only three before the start of 2016.
"People were asking, 'Why are they being scheduled on a weekend?' 'Why so few?' " said David Karol, a political science professor at the University of Maryland in College Park. "It's believed this is being done to help Hillary Clinton. While officially neutral, the Democratic National Committee appears to support Secretary Clinton and they viewed it to her advantage to have fewer debates when people are not watching."
For unknown candidates who have little or no establishment backing, debates offer exposure and potential leverage in the campaign, especially for more scrappy contenders. This was seen when Sanders rose 5 percent in the polls after the first Democratic debate in October. Seven debates later, the Vermont senator polls at a 41 percent average nationally among Democratic primary voters, according to RealClearPolitics. In February, when Sanders participated in two debates, the candidate exceeded his fundraising goal of $40 million for the month.
"It's not because Clinton is a bad debater," said Karol. "I think the calculation is that she is the front-runner. She doesn't need the debates and has more to lose from them. There is always some chance the debates would go wrong. Sanders had more to gain. It's an expectation that works against the front-running candidates."