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How Donald Trump got CNBC to change its rules for tonight's GOP debate

Two weeks ago, Donald Trump laid out an ultimatum. If CNBC — the host of tonight's Republican debate — didn't limit the event to two hours and allow the candidates to give opening and closing statements, he wouldn't show up. Ben Carson soon joined him in this boycott threat.

So on October 16, CNBC caved on both. The network agreed to cap the debate to two hours, and reportedly plans to feature 30-second closing statements from each candidate, and give them each 30 seconds to answer an open-ended question at the very beginning of the debate. Appropriately, Trump crowed on Twitter:

Why Trump had leverage

While Republican elites might well have been thrilled if Trump skipped out on tonight's debate, CNBC certainly wouldn't have felt the same way.

That's because the ratings for the first two Republican debates were massive and unprecedented — they averaged 24 million and 23 million viewers each. Indeed, Fox News's first debate was the highest-rated non-sports program ever to air on cable news. And higher expected ratings mean big ad sales — after Fox's record ratings came in, CNN, the host of the second GOP debate, started charging 40 times its usual rates for ads, according to Ad Age.

Most people believe these ratings were only so high because of Donald Trump. This week's Democratic debate averaged 15 million viewers for CNN — still very impressive, but well below the Republican ratings. So there's big money in airing a debate featuring the billionaire real estate mogul.

Yet the last debate did not go well for Trump — after it, his seemingly inexorable rise in the polls reversed itself for the first time. He seems to prefer the regular disproportionate coverage he gets from the media to specific events that place him on an equal footing with the other candidates.

Trump also understands his power to draw ratings quite well, having used it to great effect in his tangles with Fox News. So he knew he had leverage to ask CNBC for some changes. At least, some leverage.

What Trump demanded

The two demands Trump made of the network were actually pretty reasonable. Practically everyone except ad sellers seemed to agree that the last Republican debate, which lasted three hours, went on far too long. So when CNBC told the candidates that the debate would be two hours of actual "debate time" — plus commercial breaks — Trump demanded that two hours be the cap for the debate as a whole, and CNBC went along.

But a shorter debate also benefits Trump personally. It's usually in the frontrunner's interest to limit events that could dent his or her lead — hence why many believe the Democrats' sparser debate schedule was designed to help Hillary Clinton. With fewer minutes onstage, there are fewer opportunities for Trump to screw up, and fewer chances for the other candidates to take the national spotlight.

The second request was for the candidates to have opening and closing statements. The networks tend to find statements like these boring and undramatic because candidates just tend to repeat parts of their ordinary stump speeches. Plus, if there are a lot of candidates onstage, these perfunctory statements can take up a lot of precious debate time.

But it wasn't just Trump who wanted them — most of the other candidates did too. They'd far prefer to begin and end the debate on their own terms, not on the network's. According to a report by Politico's Alex Isenstadt, a Rand Paul aide even told an RNC official on a conference call, "If we don’t have opening and closing statements, CNBC can go fuck themselves."

Again, though, Trump could benefit. Judging from how often he repeats his slogan that he wants to "Make America Great Again," he thinks his basic campaign themes are quite effective. He also sounds different from the other candidates, and as the poll leader, his closing statement would traditionally be the final one given — which means Trump would have the last word.

What Trump truly would have wanted is tougher criteria for who gets onstage — right now, it looks like all 11 candidates from the CNN debate will make the cut, and Trump has repeatedly complained that too many candidates were in that debate. But since CNBC had already clearly laid out its rules for who makes the cut, changing that would've been too big an ask — even for Trump. Maybe next time, though.

Disclosure: NBCUniversal, which owns CNBC, is an investor in Vox Media.

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