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Among the many things that pundits and party operatives alike will be considering during tonight’s GOP debate on CNN – the 11th debate of this primary season – is the following question: Does it appear as though some candidates are being asked more questions than other candidates?
While the query itself is not new, the issue has received increased attention after several candidates complained about the number of questions allotment in the debates. At the Fox News debate in Ames, Iowa, this August, for instance, former Sen. Rick Santorum expressed his discontent with the debate, saying, “I told Iowans they’d see me in their hometowns, but not on TV. I’m right about that.”
Earlier this month, Rep. Michele Bachmann’s spokeswoman, Alice Stewart, sent out an email accusing CBS News of “bias” against the Minnesota congresswoman during its debate, co-hosted with the National Journal, in Spartanburg, S.C. Stewart cited an email that she had “inadvertently received” earlier that day from CBS News Political Director John Dickerson in which Dickerson had written “she’s not going to get many questions and she’s nearly off the charts.”
The Associated Press inspected the transcripts from four network debates – CBS, CNBC, CNN and Fox – and found that Gov. Mitt Romney, who has consistently polled at the top of the GOP pack, did receive the highest number of total questions across these events. Romney was asked 45 questions, followed next by Herman Cain, who received 37 questions. Gov. Rick Perry and former House Speaker Newt Gingrich followed close behind: Perry was asked a total of 36 questions, Gingrich was asked 35. Bachmann and Santorum tied with 29 questions each, and rounding out the group was Ron Paul, who has received the fewest number of questions: 27. Jon Huntsman did not participate in the CNN debate in Nevada, therefore a complete count could not be conducted for him.
Kathleen Hall Jamieson, Elizabeth Ware Packard professor of communication at the University of Pennsylvania’s Annenberg School of Communications, says candidates who are receiving more questions in the debate don’t necessarily have a leg up on their opponents who might be getting fewer inquiries.
“What is the nature of the question being asked? It depends on whether you’re being asked a question that, for example, challenges a specific weakness, or being asked a general question that everyone has a chance to answer,” Jamieson said. “Being asked a question does not necessarily mean gaining an advantage.”
Instead of measuring fairness by the number of questions asked, Jamieson believes, it’s best to examine whether candidates are getting equal opportunity to share their policies and convictions.
“The larger question about all of this is, does the candidate have a chance to articulate the ideas central to their candidacy?” Jamieson said. “And I think the answer to that is yes.”