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Democratic Primary Debates vs. Republican Primary Debates

After two history-making Republican debates, what can we expect from the Democrats? Five contenders will take the stage on Tuesday in a match that is likely to feel very different from the Republican extravaganzas of August and September.
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After two history-making Republican debates, what can we expect from the Democrats? Five contenders--Hillary Clinton, Bernie Sanders, Martin O'Malley, Lincoln Chafee, and Jim Webb--will take the stage on Tuesday in a match that is likely to feel very different from the Republican extravaganzas of August and September. Some key points of comparison:

VIEWERSHIP. Each of the first two Republican debates drew audiences of around 24 million viewers--more than double the previous record for a presidential primary debate, and about five times the average viewership of the 2012 Republican encounters. According to a certain non-traditional candidate from New York City, these numbers can be wholly attributed to the presence of one Donald J. Trump, and it's hard to argue with his reasoning. The Democrats, of course, have no comparable personality on their talent roster, leaving casual viewers without a similarly compelling reason to watch.

Yet the high level of interest generated by the Republicans may have a spillover effect on the Democrats. Campaign 2016 has thus far shown itself to be a highly unpredictable affair, and audiences who began watching the miniseries with Trump and company could find themselves hooked enough to return for the saga's next installment. Hillary versus Bernie may lack the viciousness of Donald versus Jeb, but it still presents a fascinating plot twist.

NUMBER OF DEBATES. The reduced number of Democratic primary debates this cycle--a mere six, as opposed to the Republicans' nine--gives voters fewer opportunities to check out Hillary, Bernie, et al in a group setting. This has been a particular gripe of Martin O'Malley, and he has a point: at the insistence of the national party apparatus, the Democrats are treating debates as minefields to be tiptoed through as infrequently as possible. Whether the schedule was "rigged" to protect Clinton, as O'Malley charges, we can only speculate. But it is certain that debates favor underdogs and challengers, and a candidate with high name recognition and solid poll numbers faces risks that more obscure debaters don't.

In 2008, the last time Democrats had an open shot at the presidential nomination, the contenders took part in more than twenty debates. By severely cutting back that number, party officials are depriving voters of valuable exposure to the candidates. And though the measure was designed to protect the eventual nominee, it also leaves that individual less prepared for the general election debates next fall. When Barack Obama went up against John McCain, the long and grueling primary debates had left him conditioned and ready--just look what happened four years later when he was out of practice.

DEBATE ARITHMETIC. This year's overflowing field of Republicans has wrought a couple of phenomena: the "kids' table" debates for lower-tier candidates, and an unusually crowded stage for the big-ticket events. The five Democratic debaters can each expect twice the speaking time that their Republican counterparts received, not to mention twice the camera shots, twice the ability to generate a YouTube moment, and twice the potential for committing an error. At the very least, the Democrats will have a more leisurely pace at which to share views, which means their discussion will probably be more substantive than what we heard from the Republicans.

TONE. Without a Trump in the mix, the Democrats are likely to treat each other with a higher degree of civility than the Republicans. Both Clinton and Sanders have already signaled their intention to focus their exchanges on issues rather than personalities. Though it remains to be seen whether one of the lesser-known Democrats uses his platform to blitzkrieg the front-runners, we should not expect the interpersonal vitriol that has rendered the Republican debates so profoundly combustible. Hillary Clinton is a particularly measured debater, and while Sanders has exhibited moments of outrage in previous debates, he's no bomb-thrower.

STAGING. One point of similarity between the Republican and Democratic debates lies in their sponsorship. Like the GOP events, the first Democratic matchup is being produced by a cable news network--in this case, CNN. That means viewers can assume a heavy emphasis on clash, with moderators doing everything within their power to spark conflict and stress differences. From a programming standpoint, the cable networks have been treating this season's primary debates as a politically themed reality TV series. It will be up to the candidates to determine whether they rise above that milieu or--like some of the Republicans--wallow in it.