FORTUNE Editor Alan Murray is taking some R&R for the next two weeks. Today, Clifton Leaf, Fortune’s Deputy Editor, brings the coffee and donuts.
Tonight, at 9 p.m. Eastern time, nine men who are seeking to carry the standard of the Republican Party in next year’s presidential election will battle for attention in the most crowded field of nomination-seekers the nation has ever seen. A tenth man, businessman Donald Trump, will do his best to hold on to it.
The event, the electoral season’s first prime-time primary debate, which will take place at the Quicken Loans Arena in Cleveland, is likely to be a television ratings bonanza for host Fox News—with the Washington Post’s Philip Bump suggesting it could lure more viewers than the 2015 finale of “Celebrity Apprentice.”
That’s in tiny part due to the teapot’s worth of controversy caused by who was left out of the main event. (As many as seven lower-polling GOP candidates will duke it out in a JV-squad intramural at 5 p.m., while much of America begins their commute home from work.) But mostly the evening’s draw will be the celebrity at center stage in the 9 o’clock show, Mr. Trump, whose polling numbers continue to defy gravity and no small number of pundits. As of early this morning, the Huffpost Pollster’s average of national voter surveys had Trump leading his nearest rival, former Florida Governor Jeb Bush, by a formidable 13 percentage points, and up 15 points over Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker.
If history is any indication, the challengers will heartily attack the leader. And if history is any indication, Trump will say something, or do something, YouTube-worthy in response.
A cynic might suggest that such gladiatorial theater—a WWF suit-and-tie smackdown—is all such debates are good for. The candidates will get perhaps 10 to 11 minutes apiece to make their case to America—elucidating their policy views in 60-second answers and 30-second rebuttals. That’s a time frame for sound bites and provocations, not thoughtful exchanges. What of value could we possibly learn from this?
Well, quite a bit, it turns out. Or so say two of the country’s foremost experts on presidential debates: William Benoit, professor of communication studies at Ohio University in Athens, and Rita Kirk, professor of communications and director of the Maguire Center for Ethics and Public Responsibility at Southern Methodist University, in Dallas. Benoit, who has studied nearly every one of the 167 presidential primary debates held since 1948 and who has written a seminal book on the subject, says that not only do worthwhile policy discussions regularly sneak in to such candidate face-offs, but that those who focus on meatier matters ultimately do better on election day. “Winners, as a group, talk more about policies and less about character than losers as a group,” he says.
Voters also now have more tools (and inclination) than ever to quickly fill in the gaps, says Kirk. “We’re going to see more and more people during Thursday’s debate looking for ‘second screens’—anything from looking at a candidate’s website or Facebook page to going to FactCheck.org or doing a web search,” she says. Kirk and her colleagues witnessed the start of the phenomenon four years ago, but her research suggests real-time voter engagement this year will be “amazing”: “People will really use their phones, their tablets and their computers while they’re listening to the debate. They’ll have conversations online, follow Twitter feeds, post responses on Facebook. This is a lot more interactive a public than we’ve ever seen before.”
The odd twist in electoral politics today? It’s up to voters, it seems, to insert substance into the empty spaces of rhetoric. Below, today’s news.
• Ackman builds stake in Mondelez
Activist investor William Ackman has built a $5.5 billion stake in Mondelez, a big bet the snack maker could become a massive target in a wave of consolidation that is reshaping the food industry. Ackman wants Mondelez to grow faster and cut costs, or sell itself to a rival. Few companies could afford Mondelez with a $75.6 billion market value though one potential buyer could be Kraft Heinz. WSJ (subscription required)
• SEC approves rule on CEO pay ratio
The Securities and Exchange Commission approved a new rule requiring publicly traded U.S. firms to disclose the gap between CEOs’ annual compensation and the median compensation of other employees. While businesses contend the rule is unnecessary and will be expensive and difficult to implement, supporters believe it will help investors make more informed evaluations of corporate governance. Regardless, the new rule will add more fuel to the debate over U.S. income inequality. USA Today
• EMC considering VMware deal
EMC is reportedly mulling a major overall to its corporate structure by considering selling itself to VMware, the data center virtualization company that EMC is a majority owner of. Over the past year, EMC has been the subject of mega deal rumors with other tech titans, including speculated mergers with Hewlett Packard or Dell. Oracle and Cisco have also been named as possible suitors. Fortune
• Cable TV firms’ shares tumble
We mentioned in yesterday’s CEO Daily that Walt Disney executives were forced to defend their strategy for profit powerhouse ESPN, which has lost subscribers in the age of so called “cord cutting.” A day later, Disney’s woes spread to other rivals in the cable TV sector, as investors worry that more viewers are opting for standalone streaming packages or slimmer cable packages. Disney’s stock lost $18 million in market value on Wednesday, while shares also tumbled for Time Warner, Twenty-First Century Fox, Discovery Communications, and Viacom. Reuters
Around the Water Cooler
• Tesla gears up for Model X launch
Tesla promised shareholders it will deliver its much delayed cross-over SUV, the Model X car, on time in the third quarter of this year. But at the same time, the electric car company lowered its guidance for the amount of cars it would ship for the full year from 55,000 to “between 50,000 and 55,000.” The forecast change was due to supplier and production complexities with making Model X. Fortune
• Raw pet food sales are booming
In the past year, retail sales of raw freeze-dried dog and cat food leapt 64%, while sales of raw frozen pet food are up 32%. What’s driving the trend? Well pet owners want better nutrition and organic ingredients in the food they serve their cats and dogs, and they’re embracing raw food as that’s how those pets would eat in the wild. But there are concerns. Recalls have stung the movement as raw pet food has been contaminated with salmonella and other harmful bacteria. Fortune
• Yelp hospital reviews get data boost
Yelp has announced a new feature on the crowd-sourced reviews website that will incorporate data such as average emergency room times and fines a facility may have paid into the listings for hospitals, nursing homes and dialysis clinics. The partnership with a non-profit investigative journalism operation (which is providing the data) will help ensure that reviews in the health care category are more reliable. About 6% of the businesses reviewed on Yelp’s site are tied to health care. Wired