Crunching the Numbers: What to Watch For at the Next GOP Debate

After a five-week hiatus, the Republican presidential candidates meet tomorrow night for their next prime time debate, moderated by CNN’s Wolf Blitzer. Based on how the various networks handled the first four debates, viewers should expect: 1) the questions will be aimed at getting the candidates to fight with one another; 2) Donald Trump will take more airtime than any of his competitors; 3) Blitzer and his colleagues will gobble up more speaking time than any of the individual candidates; and 4) the audience will be much higher than for the Democratic debates.

The key statistics from the first four debates, painstakingly compiled by MRC research analyst Mike Ciandella:

■ Journalist questions eat up about 20 percent of the debate time: Obviously, the moderator and panelists need to establish the topics for debate, and enforce the rules to ensure a fair exchange. But long-winded questions from the journalists who aren’t on the ballot take precious time away from the candidates who are on the ballot.

On average, journalists took up about one-fifth of each debate broadcast, but there was great variability among the networks. At the first debate, on the Fox News Channel back on August 6, the questioners ate up more than a quarter of the airtime (26.9%, or 31 minutes), followed by the CNBC moderators on October 28 (23 minutes, or 19.1%). The panelists at the Fox Business debate on November 10 used up 24 minutes of airtime (18.4%), while CNN’s panel on September 15 spoke for 29 minutes, or 15.9 percent of that debate, the only one to last three hours.

■ Commercials take up about 11 percent of each broadcast: Frontrunner Donald Trump has suggested the networks donate their advertising revenue from these debates to a worthy charity, such as the Wounded Warriors Project. Our analysis shows the commercials amounted to a bit more than ten percent of each broadcast, ranging from a low of 6.5 percent at CNN’s first debate, to a high of 17.4 percent at the Fox Business Network debate.

Total airtime devoted to commercials over roughly nine hours of debate time: 58.7 minutes, or less than one hour. That may not seem like much, but it’s more than even the most high-profile candidate, Donald Trump, received in speaking time during those same debates.

■ GOP candidate scorecard: Seven candidates have appeared in all four prime time debates, and the airtime for six of them is relatively close. Jeb Bush, Marco Rubio, Ted Cruz, John Kasich, Ben Carson and Rand Paul received between 34 and 41 minutes of speaking time. [See chart.] For his part, Donald Trump spoke for nearly 53 minutes, about 20 percent more than his next-closest rival, Jeb Bush, and 36 percent more than seventh-place Paul.

Trump’s edge came from the first two debates, as he spoke for nearly 11 minutes during the Fox News Channel debate and more than 20 minutes at the first CNN debate. But at CNBC’s debate, Marco Rubio grabbed the most mic time (almost 11 minutes), while that distinction went to Ted Cruz (just under 11 minutes) at the Fox Business Network debate. But with the ongoing controversy over Trump’s proposal to suspend Muslim immigration to the U.S., look for CNN — and his rivals — to try and put the spotlight back on the frontrunner.

Carly Fiorina was excluded from the first prime time debate, but in the subsequent three match-ups, she’s received more than 35 minutes of airtime, placing her ahead of Rand Paul’s total after four debates.

Both Chris Christie and Mike Huckabee were dropped from the most recent debate on the Fox Business Network. Christie spoke for 27 minutes during the first three debates, compared to Huckabee’s 24 minutes. Christie's back in prime time for the CNN debate, while Huckabee remains in the second-tier showdown.

Rounding out the prime time debate participants: Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker appeared at both the Fox News Channel debate and CNN’s first debate, and spoke for just over 14 minutes, before dropping out of the race.

If Trump’s Muslim proposal does indeed dominate the discussion Tuesday night, expect this debate to resemble the first two — more scrutiny of Trump, which means more airtime for Trump.

■ Will CNN skew the questions? The last CNN debate on September 15 mainly featured “food fight” questions aimed at getting the candidates to spar with each other. An analysis by MRC’s Geoffrey Dickens showed a whopping 55 of the 74 questions posed by moderator Jake Tapper and questioners Dana Bash and Hugh Hewitt “were framed to get Republican candidates to criticize each other’s positions and even personal traits.”

In contrast, the Fox Business Network debate on November 10 stuck to policy issues and maintained an elevated tone.

At this week’s debate, Blitzer will replace Tapper as the moderator, while Bash and Hewitt will return as questioners. Watch for potential agenda questions; just three weeks ago — before Trump’s controversial proposal about banning Muslim immigration — Blitzer accused the GOP candidates — plural — of expressing “harsh anti-Muslim sentiments” for reacting to the Paris terrorist attacks by suggesting a pause in accepting Syrian refugees.

But Blitzer can also play it straight; when he moderated a 2011 GOP debate, co-sponsored by the Tea Party, a plurality of the questions reflected the conservative agenda of Republican primary voters, rather than the media’s typical liberal agenda.

What Blitzer and his crew need to avoid at all costs is a repeat of the obnoxious October 28 CNBC debate. An MRC analysis of the 43 unique questions posed by moderators John Harwood, Carl Quintanilla and Becky Quick at CNBC’s Republican presidential debate found nearly two-thirds (65%) hit the candidates with negative spin, personal insults or ad hominem attacks.

■ Ratings: The Fox News Channel debate on August 6 scored the highest ratings of the season, with 24 million viewers tuning in. The CNN debate on September 15 came in just shy of 23 million viewers. These audiences were higher than any primary debate in any previous election cycle. Previously, the most-watched debate was 7.6 million, for an ABC debate in December 2011.

The CNBC and Fox Business Network debates were watched by 14 million and 13.5 million, respectively, making them the most-watched programs in each network’s history.

In contrast, the Democratic debate on CNN in October was watched by 15.3 million, and CBS’s Saturday night debate in November was seen by 8.5 million. Averaged together, the GOP debates are pulling an audience about 50 percent higher than that of the Democratic candidates — 18.6 million for the Republicans, vs. 12.2 million for the Democrats.

Voting in Iowa is set to begin in just seven weeks, and Trump’s controversial suggestion of banning Muslim immigration has put the GOP race at the top of the news cycle. It wouldn’t be much of a surprise if the audience for this debate is among the highest for this primary season.

— Rich Noyes is Research Director at the Media Research Center. Follow Rich Noyes on Twitter.