The fluctuating race for the Republican presidential nomination has seen poll numbers rise and fall rise after each debate, prompting candidates' campaigns to draft a list of demands for greater control in future debates, then abandoning those demands before continuing to complain about supposed unfairnesses in these events. Although two candidates have maintained lofty polling positions, it's still technically a toss-up, something that has intrigued potential voters, as evidenced by record-setting TV viewership.
But as each GOP candidate looks to capitalize on the attention that comes with the spotlight of a presidential debate -- such as Tuesday night's, the fourth GOP debate --political analysts said it's the element of uncertainty coupled with the wide GOP field and the party’s desire to take back the White House that is likely to keep viewers tuning in as the campaign season proceeds.
“Here’s what keeps Republicans interested is that they want to win in 2016, and they don’t know which one of these guys or gal is going to win,” Republican strategist Ford O’Connell said. “The fact that we don’t who’s going to win is going to keep people watching.”
The Republican debate Tuesday night in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, will mark the fourth time this season that GOP presidential candidates take the stage in three months to show voters they have what it takes to win their party’s nomination. After the widely criticized CNBC debate last month, this is also a chance for Fox Business Network to offer its own version of an economic-focused debate that leaves candidates and voters with a more satisfying experience.
This stands in stark contrast to the Democratic contest, where former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has been the presumptive nominee for months and is still considered relatively safe despite an enthusiastic challenge from Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders.
For Republicans, the front-runner status of outsiders Donald Trump and now Dr. Ben Carson has shaken up the large field, leaving establishment candidates scrambling for donors and attention amid the theatrics. With the first few debates including 10 and 11 people on the main stage, some candidates have struggled to get more than 10 minutes of speaking time in an evening, let alone “win” the event.
Although debates undeniably drive some aspects of the media narrative around the election (see Carly Fiorina’s momentary rise after her initial strong debate performances), not everyone is convinced the televised events are good predictors of the eventual nominees. Political analyst Larry Sabato said debates are rarely the sole factor behind a candidate’s polling numbers. Still, he said, sometimes one moment can resonate with voters and change their view of a politician.
“With debates, you never know whether it’s a sugar high or a permanent transformation of the race,” Sabato said. “That’s why we watch; we never know. We never know if someone is going to offer the definitive gaffe of the campaign or if something is going to happen that’s going to change the game.”
The first two debates of the 2016 cycle brought in 24 million and 23 million viewers, respectively. Though the third Republican debate saw smaller viewership at 14 million, that was still a record for CNBC. Fox Business, a newer network and a fierce competitor of CNBC, has said it hopes to fix the mistakes Republicans saw in the last debate and give viewers an informative, professional event.
Fox Business has not released an expected viewership number for Tuesday, but last week, two of the network’s moderators sat down with International Business Times to talk about their goals for the debate. “The reason we do these debates is to help the viewer, the voter, better understand the candidates’ positions on things. And to better distinguish how one plan differs from the next plan,” Maria Bartiromo, host of Fox Business’ “Maria in the Mornings,” told IBT.
Experts seem to agree with Bartiromo on the goal of primary debates. While general-election debates are about seeing your candidate beat his or her opponent, according to Sabato, in the primary, everyone is ostensibly on the same team.
“New voters will certainly pay attention. New voters and new registrants are still learning the rules, so they want to find out information,” Sabato said.
The long timeline of presidential primaries typically also means that the majority of those following the election this early are very partisan, or at least very interested in politics. But with the outsized personalities and the unusually large field this year, the 2016 primary seems to have drawn more national attention than usual.
“Clearly in this stage of the game, the early state voters know they have an election coming up or are starting to feel it,” said David Redlawsk, a political science professor and director of the Eagleton Center for Public Interest Polling at Rutgers University. “But this time around there’s less of that; it’s become more nationalized, and that’s because of Donald Trump.”
While Fox Business says they are not focused solely on viewership, the network does not seem content to rely on Trump to bring in entertained voters. It will be live streaming the debate on its own website as well as on FoxNews.com. And in an even bigger step, it is temporarily “unbundling” during the debate, which means the channel will be accessible for cable subscribers around the country who are not in the 82 million homes that already receive Fox Business.
This should help viewership of the debate, but the candidates are also using other means to reach voters.
“Candidates are using social media to try to reach a demographic and a voter base who would not normally be interested in the campaign at this stage,” said John Carroll, an assistant professor of mass communication at Boston University. Carroll emphasized that although the Republican front-runners have not necessarily dominated the debates so far, their presence has created an atmosphere that requires showmanship, even in policy-focused debates like the CNBC one and this Fox Business event.
“The question remains: Are Donald Trump and Ben Carson a summertime fling for voters or is this a committed relationship?” Carroll said. “As the voting comes closer, will people start to think about not only ‘Who do I really like?’ but also ‘Who can become president’? That may change the dynamic.”
The debate airs at 9 p.m. Eastern time on Fox Business.