presidential forums debates 2016
U.S. Republican presidential candidate Dr. Ben Carson (right) responds to a question from Jack Graham, pastor of Prestonwood Baptist Church, during the North Texas Presidential Forum hosted by the Faith & Freedom Coalition in Plano, Texas, Oct. 18, 2015. Reuters/Mike Stone

The Democrats running for their party's presidential nomination in 2016 are scheduled to descend on Rock Hill, South Carolina, Friday evening for a forum with MSNBC host Rachel Maddow. Earlier in the day, U.S. Sen. Tim Scott, a South Carolina Republican, will host Republican presidential candidate and U.S. Sen. Rand Paul of Kentucky for a town hall-style forum, the Herald newspaper reported.

So why is this likely the first time you’re reading about these events? It’s because political forums and town halls are less prestigious than presidential debates. The stakes aren’t as high in political forums, which are usually an informal opportunity for candidates to speak at length about particular issues or special interests.

Unlike in presidential debates, there generally are no time limits for answers in a political forum. Political pundits and the political press often do not choose winners and losers after a political forum is held.

Presidential debates are formal events agreed upon by each major U.S. political party, often well in advance of candidates jumping into the race. Topics and questions tend to range from the most controversial issues of the election season to a candidate’s professional and political track record. Generally, a winner and a loser is decided by pundits and media outlets after these events.

The importance of political forums for campaigns shouldn't be understated, though. Religious conservatives and Republicans tend not to miss the Conservative Political Action Conference, an annual forum that draws both declared and undeclared presidential candidates who are looking to bone up on their conservative credentials. Campaign donors often attend these events, too.

In the summer preceding a national general election, civil rights groups and professional association organizations will invite presidential candidates to address their conventions. In July, most of the Democratic field and some of the Republican candidates addressed the Orlando convention of the National Urban League, an African-American civil rights group.

In October, the Democratic National Committee (DNC) endorsed candidates’ participation in a justice-themed presidential forum with the Black Lives Matter movement, an anti-police brutality group that led national protests after multiple instances of police-involved deaths of young black men and women. But the DNC would not add the forum to the formal debate schedule, media reports said.

Presidential Candidates | InsideGov