Was the first GOP debate about the candidates, or about Fox News, which presented the event on Thursday night? It could be about the network. The two-hour political extravaganza pulled in 24 million viewers according to initial Nielsen ratings numbers - breaking the all-time record for a non-sports cable event. In the 48 hours since then, the debate took on a life of its own following remarks by Donald Trump on a rival network.
A good comparison here: the largest audience that any debate drew in the 2012 election was 7.6 million. Some analysts cite the draw of GOP frontrunner Mr. Trump, who indeed delivered commentary, policy and potshots with much verve - countered by a trio of determined Fox News moderators.
But the presidential race moves quickly. In the aftermath, the candidates have already returned to the campaign trail; 10 headed for the annual RedState Gathering in Atlanta this weekend to continue their narratives. Mr. Trump, meanwhile, appeared Friday on CNN for a kind of post-game show - criticizing the Fox News debate coverage, and moderator Megyn Kelly in particular.
Among other things, he called her “overrated,” and said she asked “ridiculous questions” on the big night. His comments drew even more coverage, and some blockbuster headlines at the Drudge Report and elsewhere. It was a bodacious debut for the Republican debates - and there are 10 more to come.
And about that coverage on Thursday: Of the two-hour broadcast, the candidates collectively spoke for one hour and eight minutes total. Mr. Trump spoke for 10 minutes, 32 seconds, with Jeb Bush in second place at eight minutes, 32 seconds - this according to University of Minnesota political professor Eric Ostermeier, who tallied it all up with a stop watch and a spreadsheet.
The Fox News moderators spoke for 32 minutes - taking up about a third of the total on-camera dialogue.
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The playing field, in fact, was not particularly level. As far as the 10 candidates go, an equal distribution of speaking time would have been six minutes and 52 seconds per candidate, Mr. Ostermeier says.
“However, Trump and Bush were the only two candidates who reached — and exceeded — that mark,” the professor adds. “They received more than their equal share of speaking time while the rest of the field was shortchanged.”
In third place was Mike Huckabee at 6:40 followed by Sen. Ted Cruz (6:39), Ohio Gov.John Kasich (6:31), Ben Carson (6:23), Sen. Marco Rubio (6:22), New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie (6:10), Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker (5:51), and in last place, Sen. Rand Paul (5:10).
“In other words, Trump spoke for more than twice as long as Senator Paul,” Mr. Ostermeier says. (See his research here)
Who generated the most buzzy buzz? According to Synthesio — a research group that monitors social media, news sites and other sources for those all-important mentions — it was predictably Mr. Trump. From there, it was less predictable, however. Ben Carson, was in second place for buzz, followed Mr. Kasich, Mr. Cruz and Mr. Paul, the group said.