Tired of the presidential debates? Here's why they matter

Marco Rubio and Ted Cruz
David A. Grogan | CNBC
Marco Rubio and Ted Cruz

If you think the Republican primary debates have been boring, aren't relevant and have done little to shape the course of the primary season, you would be dead wrong.

Rather, the debates have taken center stage and have had a direct impact on the caucus and primary results. From Donald Trump's no-show, to the takedown of a surging Marco Rubio and the emergence of John Kasich, there has been no shortage of action. Most importantly, voters are not only tuning in, they seem to be making decisions based on the what happens in the debates.

Trump was in great shape heading into the Iowa Caucuses. He was leading in the polls and had great momentum. Due to a feud with Megyn Kelly on Fox News, Trump decided to skip the Jan. 28 debate just days before Iowa Republican votes would cast their vote for a nominee. Instead, he tried to steal the show with a stump speech and fund-raising event. It turned out to be a massive miscalculation according to our research team.

My company, Samba TV, analyzes television viewing behavior of millions of people broken down by geography and other demographics. Of the active TV viewing households that critical evening, 14.1 percent tuned in to the Fox News debate, while only 3.8 percent watched Trump's solo speech on CNN.

The impact of Trump's decision was immediate. His absence enabled the other candidates to shine, particularly Cruz and Rubio, who held center stage without Trump commandeering the viewing audience's attention.

In what most political pundits described as a shocking upset, Trump lost to Ted Cruz and barely held on to second place as Marco Rubio's popularity spiked.

While many were surprised at the result, Samba TV's data helps explain what happened. Iowans tuned in at a disproportionately high level relative to the rest of the U.S. and were more engaged through the very end of the debate. Trump himself conceded that his choice to skip the Jan. 28 debate may have cost him the state. A reality TV star knows the power of a television battle better than anyone.

As Trump moved to the Feb. 6 debate in New Hampshire, he was bruised, but not broken. Well aware of his misstep in Iowa, he also understood the power of an engaged TV audience.

Rather than backing down, he publicly accused the Republican National Committee of stacking the venue audience with donors and appealed directly to the TV viewing audience as an outsider untainted by campaign donations. Just as we saw in Iowa, the people of New Hampshire were disproportionately focused, watching 32 minutes longer than the national average.

Trump's decision to rejoin the debates had immediate payoff as he handily defeated his fellow Republican candidates in the primary.

Equally notable was Marco Rubio who was mercilessly challenged by Chris Christie, who painted him as a "scripted robot." New Hampshire voters who were forming opinions during the debate voted Rubio a disappointing fifth place in the primary and the Senator has since acknowledged his poor debate performance and the ensuing result. John Kasich on the other hand, who has been relatively unnoticed in previous debates, delivered a very strong debate performance which helped catapult him to a second place finish in the primary.

"We have seen how influential debate performance can be for viewers who are clearly forming their opinions just days before they cast their vote."

As we head toward the next primaries in South Carolina and Nevada, a debate will once again take place on Feb. 13, and we believe this one will be of particular importance as the field begins to narrow. We have seen how influential debate performance can be for viewers who are clearly forming their opinions just days before they cast their vote.

According to Samba TV's research team, debate viewership remains steady and particularly strong in states gearing up to vote.

Hopefully, the candidates have learned their lessons. Not only is it important to show up, they must bring their "A games" as the residents of South Carolina and Nevada will be watching closely. While it is challenging to predict how the South Carolina primary and Nevada caucuses will shake out, we are confident in saying the candidate who owns the debate and rises above his rivals will make a strong showing when the voters cast their ballot in the days immediately following.

With all the talk about the millions spent on ground game, TV commercials, social media, robo-dialers and appearances at the local diner, the power of the debates and the impact they have on voters is undeniable. If nothing else, viewers should take a page from Trump's playbook and not skip the next debate.

Commentary by Ryan King, director of research at Samba TV, which captures real-time audience metrics on viewer engagement as related to TV and second-screen behavior. Follow @samba_tv on Twitter.

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