Ohio University professor Ben Bates really likes politics.
But after watching 15 presidential debates since August, even he is getting a little bored.
“I’m really into this kind of stuff, but I’m only able to watch them for 45 minutes to an hour now,” said Bates, a communications professor who specializes in campaigns and messaging.
“I can’t recall a time when there has been this many presidential debates,” he said. “And to have this number of people involved in them, is also unprecedented.”
The CNN debate on Thursday night in Houston is the 10th for Republicans. Three more debates are set in March and more will be added in April and May, if the primary contest is still going on.
Meanwhile Democrats have completed six debates and two more are scheduled in March.
“There is definitely a bit of debate fatigue,” said University of Cincinnati political science professor David Niven.
“Part of that is the intensity of the early debates, which felt so new given the unique cast of characters running,” Niven said. “Now, it's like the 15th season of American Idol: People feel like they have seen this show before.”
Early debates drew enormous audiences. Roughly 24 million people watched the first GOP debate in August, and 23 million watched the second debate in September. While Democrats didn’t bring in the same audience, still an impressive 15.3 million watched their first debate on CNN.
Ratings dipped in November and December, but GOP viewership appears to be rebounding. The contentious South Carolina debate on Feb. 6 drew 13.51 million viewers, according to the Los Angeles Times.
“The early debates were like the NCAA tournament,” said University of Dayton marketing professor Randy Sparks, who is a frequent political commentator.
“I’m not as interested in 64 teams,” Sparks said. “But I’m a lot more interested when there are eight.”
The GOP field has dwindled to five candidates: Donald Trump, Ted Cruz, Marco Rubio, John Kasich and Ben Carson. Each candidate will have more time to speak at the University of Houston on Thursday night, which may draw more viewers and a deeper policy discussion.
“Not only does it mean more screen time for each candidate, but new alliances are formed,” Niven said. “ (Chris) Christie and (Jeb) Bush won't be there to try to knock down Rubio. Rubio and Cruz will have to grapple with the fact Trump is outshining them.”
If moderator Wolf Blitzer steers the debate toward policy instead of personality clashes, it could give Kasich a real chance to shine, Bates said.
“If Kasich is given equal time to speak, he might really be able to break out,” Bates said.
Kasich could use a strong performance before the crucial March 1 SEC Primary, where 12 states will hold elections. Many political experts are wondering how long Kasich will remain in the race, and if he will drop out after Super Tuesday’s votes are cast.
This Isn’t a Ronald Reagan Debate
Over the past two decades, debates have become less about policy and more about theatrics. Moderators now have celebrity status. Debates are less formal. And with looser rules, candidates speak directly to one another.
“There’s less substance and more sound bites,” Sparks said.
This is especially true with Trump in the race. Many credit him with bringing in such high ratings and attracting a wider audience to debates, beyond just political junkies.
“This year there are also people watching for entertainment value, wondering ‘What is the Donald going to say this time?’” Bates said.
Trump’s antics at the debates have become office water cooler talk, said Joe Valenzano, chair of UD’s communications department and an expert in rhetoric.
“Your viewers are the people who are interested in politics, and the people who are interested in Trump,” Valenzano said.
With as many as 10 GOP candidates on stage at once, earlier debates were too crowded to produce much policy talk or learn about a candidate’s platform.
Instead the debates were just a way to see candidates under pressure, said UD political science lecturer Dan Birdsong.
“Will they lose their temper and break down? Will they go off message? Or will they stay on message and sound robotic?” he said.
The debate Thursday will also draw undecided voters, and those who will vote soon in early March primaries, experts said.
“There are two categories of people who will watch the debate – people who are still seeking someone to vote for … and a second group who has already made up their mind and want their opinions confirmed,” Sparks said.
Perhaps the one candidate who has the most to gain on Thursday is Kasich. He hasn’t gotten as much publicity as other candidates, but has outlasted the expectations of many.
“The only person we’re undecided about is John Kasich,” Bates said. “We’ve seen so much of Trump, Rubio, Cruz and Carson. I think people will tune in to see how John Kasich does.”