Former Maryland governor and Democratic presidential candidate Martin O'Malley made a notable claim when he appeared this month on a Baltimore television station for his first full-length interview to assess his unsuccessful bid for the White House.
The networks hosting the televised debates he took part in, O'Malley said, delineated what share of questions each candidate would receive — or, in his case, would not receive.
O'Malley, who never polled especially well in the contest, dropped out in February after placing a distant third in Iowa behind former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders.
He pressed aggressively for the Democratic Party to sanction more debates.
"The rules are never designed in a way to help the challenger," O'Malley told WMAR's Richard Sher.
"The public never was told this, but they would tell us, 'Look, Secretary Clinton's going to get 50 percent of the questions, Senator Sanders is going to get 40 percent and you're going to get 10 percent of the questions,'" he said. "And they said, 'If you want to be heard, you're going to have to jump in on one of their questions.'"
For general election debates, the national parties and the nominees negotiate for roughly equal airtime. But for the primary debates, several analysts said, networks have more journalistic license to choose who gets which questions — and how many.
It is under the same rubric that networks create undercard debates that feature candidates who are not polling as well as the top-tier contenders. The networks set the rules to determine who is polling well enough to appear on the prime-time stage and who will not make the cut.
"Actually, what O'Malley has noted here in terms of strategy to get more talk time is what we've found in our research," Mitchell S. McKinney, chairman of the department of communication at the University of Missouri, said in an email. "The candidate who gets more attacks in these debates — which is usually the leading candidate — gets more talk time.
"No one on the stage is usually attacking the O'Malleys of the field, so they're doubly ignored," McKinney wrote. "Much more so for the primary debates, the debate rules are constructed to create a good ... show rather than a forum that ensures any sense of equality."
A Baltimore Sun review of the questions that Clinton, O'Malley and Sanders received in the three debates in which only those candidates took part found that Clinton received 40 percent of the questions, Sanders 38 percent and O'Malley 22 percent. That does not include responses to attacks or instances in which a candidate interjected.
It also does not include a CNN-hosted debate in October that featured five candidates.
NBC and CBS did not respond to a request for comment. ABC did not respond to O'Malley's statement, but an official said the network does not negotiate with candidates over the quantity or content of questions.