That was a good debate.
Let’s have some more of them.
Let’s have a lot more of them.
And let’s have a lot more of them on weeknights, when viewership, listenership and general attention is likely to be dramatically greater than on “ratings-disaster” weekend nights.
Saturday night’s debate in Manchester, New Hampshire, went deep on the issues, highlighting genuine differences between the three Democratic candidates. Things got contentious at times; but the disagreement were about policies and programs rather than the pettiness and personalities that is now fully defines the Republican debate.
After Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders and former secretary of state Hillary Clinton dialed down tensions over the Democratic National Committee data breach, with Sanders apologizing for a fired aide who was accused of accessing data inappropriately (“this is not the type of campaign that we run”) and Clinton accepting that apology (“we should move on because I don’t think the American people are interested”), the contenders divided sharply over foreign policy.
Suggesting that Clinton was too hawkish with regard to past and present fights in the Middle East, Sanders said,”Our differences are very deep on this issue. We disagree on the war in Iraq, we both listened to the information from Bush and Cheney, I voted against the war. But I think, and I say this with due respect, I worry too much that Secretary Clinton is too much into regime change and a little bit too aggressive without knowing what the unintended consequences might be.” Clinton pushed back, arguing that, “All of these are very difficult issues. I know that, I’ve been dealing with that for a very long time,” and suggesting that, in the fight against ISIS, “We now finally are where we need to be. We have a strategy and a commitment to go after ISIS, which is a danger to us as well as the region.”
Former Maryland Governor Martin O’Malley clashed with Clinton over gun control. “Secretary Clinton changes her position on this every election year,” claimed O’Malley. “Look, what we need is not more polls, we need more principles.” “[Let’s] tell the truth here,” countered Clinton, who described her support for major gun-control measures.
The former secretary of state was prodded with regard to her ties to corporate interests. ABC’s David Muir asked: “Should corporate America love Hillary Clinton?” Clinton replied, “Everybody should.” Sanders then waded in with an observation that, “I don’t think I’m going to get a whole lot of campaign contributions from Wall Street.”
The third Democratic debate was not a “Saturday Night’s Alright for Fighting” moment. But there was enough conflict and tension, energy and insight, to clarify that the Democrats really do have a race for the presidency going on—a race that includes a front-runner with significant experience and support, a serious insurgent challenger who gives voice to the frustrations of many base voters, and an upstart with relatively low poll numbers but high ideals.
Unfortunately, this consequential Saturday night debate was held on a Saturday night. And not just any Saturday night—the last one before the last great pause in the political calendar that comes during the period from Christmas to New Year’s Day.
“I guess Christmas Eve was booked,” Michael Briggs, a spokesman for Sanders, told The New York Times.
“They’ve scheduled it during shopping season, December 19th,” complained O’Malley, whose campaign needs all the debate exposure it can get. “I don’t know why that is. I think it’s out of a false sense that they have to circle the wagons around the inevitable front-runner.”
Democratic National Committee chair Debbie Wasserman Schultz and her aides beg to differ, as they prattle on about “robust” viewership.
That’s just silly. The latest debate attracted a mere 6.71 million viewers, the lowest number so far for any 2016 debate organized by the DNC or the RNC. Saturday night’s debate was such a flop that it barely attracted one quarter of the viewership of the most watched Republican debate.
A “Christmas Special” debate, scheduled to compete with last-minute shopping, partying, and traveling was never going to rival the ratings for the various and sundry Republican debates—which so far have been held on a Thursday night, a Wednesday night, a Wednesday night, a Tuesday night, and a Tuesday night. The next Republican debate will be held on a Thursday night, as will the one after that. Only on rare Saturday nights before the New Hampshire and South Carolina primaries—when, presumably, lots of folks will be paying attention—will the Republicans dare a weekend debate.
For the Democrats, however, it is all about the weekend.
Their November Democratic debate was on a Saturday night in Des Moines. From a viewership standpoint, it was a disaster. That debate attracted only around 8.5 million viewers—barely one-third of the total that watched the first Republican debate. The response of the O’Malley campaign to those numbers was the right one: “We can’t fool ourselves—the Republicans are eating our lunch in terms of attention and viewership because of the unprecedented, unilateral, and arbitrary way the DNC Chair determined this schedule,” said O’Malley deputy campaign manager Lis Smith.
So what are the Democrats doing? Holding more weekend debates.
The only December Democratic debate was on Saturday night in Manchester. The next Democratic debate will be on Sunday night in Charleston—but it won’t be on the Saturday night before the South Carolina primary; it will be held a month before South Carolinians go to vote.
Here’s the problem: As groups such as Media Matters and Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting have made clear, the Democratic race is getting less media attention than the Republican race. The attention paid Clinton, Sanders, and O’Malley, in combination, has been dramatically less than the attention paid one Republican—billionaire Donald Trump. Even also-ran Republicans like former Florida governor Jeb Bush have enjoyed far more television time than Sanders and O’Malley and, of late, second- and third-term Republicans have grabbed more of the spotlight than Clinton.
It is absolutely reasonable to grumble about the failure of major media outlets—especially the broadcast television networks—to provide a reasonable mix of coverage for the Democratic race. But it would be absurd to neglect the role that the Democratic National Committee has played in directing attention away from the Democratic race.
Yes, Trump is a ratings machine. But even before Trump turned the 2016 race into a reality TV show, the Republican debates were attracting far more viewership and coverage than the Democratic debates. The very first Republican debate, held two months before the first Democratic debate, attracted 24 million viewers—making it the highest-rated primary debate in television history. And the Republican ratings have continued to overwhelm those of the Democrats.
More Americans watched the first Republican debate of the 2016 campaign than voted in all the Republican primaries and caucuses of 2012.
That’s a particularly salient detail, as one of the functions of debates among candidates for a party’s nomination is to get voters to pay attention to the party’s presidential prospects and the campaign to come.
Surely, the Republican debates have produced more drama than Republican National Committee chairman Reince Priebus was counting on when he unveiled a far more ambitious debate schedule than the Democrats have mustered. Priebus lost control of his own process after the second GOP debate. But that’s not all bad. Both major political parties have been too controlling, and too boring, in recent years. And both have suffered as a result: the Republicans in presidential elections, the Democrats in off-year elections.
For now at least, the Republican debates are the hottest political ticket on the 2016 campaign trail. That’s good for Trump and for candidates who are not Trump. After all, if the point of a political party is to attract attention to candidates and policies—and it is—then the Republicans are doing something right.
The Democrats are doing most things wrong.
After months of delays, the DNC arranged a debate schedule that was cautious, restricted, and unambitious.
While the Republicans began debating in August, the Democrats waited until October to get started.
While the Republicans planned as many as a dozen debates, the Democrats started with just four firm debates. They will probably get to six—and they have allowed for some forums to take up the slack—but the Republican schedule is so much more serious that comparisons simply embarrass the Democrats.
While the Republicans are taking debates to ten or more states—including populous states such as California and Texas, as well as key swing states such as Colorado and Ohio—Democrats are traveling to fewer states on a more narrowly defined schedule.
By any measure, the Democratic schedule is insufficient.
How insufficient? Not since 1980 has a major party with a competitive race for the nomination scheduled so few debates, according to FiveThirtyEight.
O’Malley has been especially blunt in his criticism of the schedule, which he says was designed to benefit Clinton and harm the prospects of lesser-known contenders. “It’s all about trying to pre-ordain the outcome, circle the wagons and close off debate,” O’Malley has argued. “If they could actually accelerate the date of the Iowa caucuses and hold them tomorrow—they’d like to do that. Then there’d be no campaign at all. That’s what they’d really like.”
Sanders told The New York Times when the debate schedule was initially announced that he was ““disappointed, but not surprised.” He added that it was “imperative that we have as many debates as possible—certainly more than six.”
Sanders has even suggested that the schedule could be opened up and expanded by encouraging Democratic contenders to debate with Republican contenders.
But the DNC has, so far, only agreed to allow a few additional forums—no new debates.
The DNC is being too controlling. And anyone who wagers that a party can control and manage its way to the White House, especially in so disrupted and disruptive a political moment as this, is making a risky bet. (What if Trump is nominated and then runs both left and right? What if, in rejecting Trump, the Republicans gain stature?)
The constrained debate schedule that the DNC has proposed is bad for candidates such as O’Malley, who needs strong debate performances—which he is capable of delivering—to expand his appeal. It’s bad for Sanders, who needs strong debate performances—which he is capable of delivering—in order to narrow the gap on Clinton.
But a restricted debate schedule is also bad for Clinton. She has repeated delivered strong debate performances. In fact, a case can be made that those strong performances have cemented her front-runner status in the Democratic race.
The problem is that most Americans are not seeing Clinton, Sanders, or O’Malley do well in the debates. That’s ridiculous, and potentially damaging to all three contenders and to the party’s long-term prospects.
The Democratic debates do not have to be as theatrical as the Trump-dominated Republican debates. The Democrats have proven they can disagree without being overly disagreeable. But they have not proven it on nights when viewership is robust and coverage is serious.
Saturday-night debates are rarely, if ever, a good idea.
Weekend debates make little sense.
The DNC needs to schedule more debates on more nights when more Americans are watching.
That’s good for Democrats. And that’s good for democracy—especially in what is shaping up as an entirely unpredictable and frequently volatile political season that ought not be dominated by one party. As Lis Smith says, “It’s clear we need to open up the process, have more debates, and engage more voters in this process.”