The Democratic Primary Debates Are Increasingly Pointless

The format is stale and uninformative, and there are going to be seven (!) more of these things.
November 21, 2019, 2:31pm
Democratic presidential candidates wave to the crowd from the debate stage.
The candidates onstage on Wednesday. Photo by Elijah Nouvelage/Bloomberg via Getty

The fifth Democratic debate of the primary, held on Wednesday night in Atlanta by MSNBC and the Washington Post, unfolded in the on-time, on-message manner of a well-produced television event. The moderators asked candidates to speak to specific topics—whether they would try to unify America, whether "lock him up" chants about Donald Trump were declasse, how they would address high housing prices in America's cities. The candidates largely ignored these prompts in favor of pivoting to their preferred talking points and well-rehearsed jokes. The second-worst thing about the debate was that it felt like a rehash of previous installments featuring the same cast and the same conflicts. The worst thing about the debate was realizing there are going to be seven more of these miserable things. That's too many, and these debates should stop happening, the sooner the better.

There's obvious value in putting the candidates onstage together and asking them to defend their positions. And there was huge public interest in the debates when they began this summer, with 15 million people tuning into the first one. But as time has gone on, those ratings have declined. Maybe that's a consequence of interested voters learning more about the candidates and not feeling the need to tune in. Maybe the crowded stage is itself a turnoff (there were 10 candidates debating one another on Wednesday). It could also be the disjointed conversations that tend to arise from such a crowd, with the moderators hopping from candidate to candidate to ask about an array of topics. Clearly, the format isn't exactly working from the perspective of creating a good entertainment product.

Who is it working for? Definitely not the frontrunners, i.e. the few people who actually have a chance of becoming president, who have their time cut into by obscure figures like Andrew Yang and Tom Steyer. Bernie Sanders spoke for only around 12 minutes, slightly more than Amy Klobuchar, but at least America got the chance to listen to a lengthy back and forth between Kamala Harris and Tulsi Gabbard, who are drawing a combined 6 percent in the polls.

You could argue these events provide a platform for these marginal candidates to get their messages out. But at this point, five debates and who's-counting months into the primary process, these people have had their chance and have failed to attract much support.

The larger question is whether debates actually change people's minds. Grading the candidates' performances is by now a media ritual, but having a "good" or "bad" night according to the pundits hasn't seemed to move the needle all that much among actual 2020 voters. Harris had a powerful moment during a June debate when she confronted Joe Biden over his past opposition to busing as an anti-segregation measure, but after a brief uptick her numbers have fallen to Yang-esque levels. Klobuchar, a relative centrist who is sometimes praised for her debate performances by pundits, has used that momentum to rise… to a distant fifth place in the Iowa polls. On the other end of the spectrum you have Biden, whose debate-night gaffes have been pointed out ad nauseam but still has a solid lead over the field.

The candidates who have managed to rise in the polls can't really attribute their successes to the debates. Elizabeth Warren's upward trajectory might have been helped by her solid appearances in these events, but it's probably got more to do with her well-run campaign—organized and planned down to the selfie lines—the positive attention she's gotten for her policy proposals from left-leaning media outlets, and her ability to appeal to moderates. The millions she's spending on ads certainly doesn't hurt. Similarly, Pete Buttigieg has been fine on the debate stage, not brilliant. But he's charismatic, can channel Obama-era rhetoric about bringing Americans together, and has blanketed Iowa in TV ads to great effect. (He's now spending a lot in South Carolina as well as he tries to garner Black support.) Tom Steyer doesn't have the personal magnetism of Warren or Buttigieg, but he has millions of his own money to spend on commercials, which took him from literally 0 support to enough of a polling bump to get on the debate stage, where he has contributed exactly nothing.

If only the Democratic Party could admit that the debates fail along several lines—boring and annoying to watch, not particularly informative, not really changing voters' minds—they could tear down this format once and for all and replace it with a better way to introduce candidates to the public. This could be one-on-one interviews where a politician has a chance to speak at length and be challenged by a probing journalist. There could be head-to-head matchups where two candidates get to define what makes them different from one another and where they agree. You could put them in costumes a la The Masked Singer, which is one of the most popular shows in America.

Or just cancel these things entirely—in this day and age, interested voters can get more than enough information about the candidates from their omnipresent social media accounts, videos of their speeches, and the endless supply of articles breaking down the race. We don't need another forum for rapid-fire arguments and bite-sized summaries of issues, and at this point that's all the debates provide.

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