The Washington Post

Debates far more level terrain than polls

Expect a lot of jostling for airtime in Thursday’s Republican debate, the final time all seven major GOP candidates are scheduled to share a stage before the Iowa caucuses.

Sure, it is a last, best shot for candidates to reshape the contest, but candidates – particularly those trailing in the polls — often simply feel aggrieved by what they see as a lack of attention from the moderators.

"I think it's only respectful to allow the candidates to be able to speak and not intentionally ahead of time make a decision to limit candidates' opportunity to speak to the American people," Minnesota Rep. Michele Bachmann complained during the CBS News debate in South Carolina. Texas Rep. Ron Paul and former Utah governor Jon Huntsman Jr. also perceived unfair treatment at that debate.

But do lower-tier Republican candidates have bias in debates to blame for their standing in the polls? A look at the data assembled by The Post’s graphics team says no, not really. Bachmann’s time did dip below her polling level in that CBS News debate, but across the debates, Republican candidates scoring in the single digits — including Bachmann — consistently received an outsized share of debate time relative to their poll positions.

Polls are often used as criteria to screen candidates for debates, but they seem to have a more limited effect afterward. The debate stage has proved far more egalitarian than have voters.  

Figure 1 shows a timeline of the average percentage of time candidates got in debates relative to their poll standing just before each event. With few exceptions, Bachmann, Huntsman and former Pennsylvania senator Rick Santorum get a higher percentage of time than their percentage in polls leading up to the debates. (Note the one exception for Bachmann in the Nov. 12 debate.)

The biggest such discrepancy in any debate is for Santorum, who spoke for 18 percent of the time at the FOX/Google debate in Orange County, Fla., after averaging just 3 percent in polls preceding the event. On average, Santorum has grabbed 11 percent of the time for debates he’s attended. For Huntsman, it’s an average of 10 percent of the time and a poll average of 2 percent.

Figure 2 summarizes the data across all 11 debates since June 13.

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