How to Improve the Democratic Primary Debates

It’s time to make them less about soundbite theater and more about nuanced discussion.

Presidential primary debates are supposed to be one of the greatest tests of the campaign: a chance for lesser known candidates to become household names with strong performances, and for voters to learn how effectively candidates can explain their proposals. They are, in other words, a window into what candidates believe and how they think. But the first four Democratic primary debates have hardly served their intended purpose, nor have they significantly shaped the 2020 presidential race.

In a historically crowded field with senators, governors, a former vice president, and outsiders like Andrew Yang, these debates should have been a golden opportunity for obscure candidates to “break out,” or, at the very least, for unconventional ideas to get a national airing. Instead, they were used by the moderators to pit Democrats against each other in the hopes of boosting ratings. As a consequence, the public has not learned enough about the substance of the men and women vying to replace Donald Trump.

After fourteen hours of televised debates, most of the top ten candidates are polling close to where they were before the debates began six months ago, with Elizabeth Warren being the exception. Unfortunately, personal attacks—not policy revelations—have generated the most attention. The biggest debate moments thus far have been Kamala Harris’s questionable attack on Joe Biden’s old views on busing, which don’t appear to differ significantly from her own, and Julian Castro intimating that Biden could not remember what he said just minutes earlier.

Part of the debates’ failure may be due to the nature of the field—frontrunners try to play it safe while longshots try to stand out by attacking the frontrunners. But the Democratic National Committee (DNC) bears plenty of responsibility as well—from its qualifying requirements to its format.

Democrats owe it to themselves—and the country—to improve this process. Here’s where they can start.

For one, there have been too many candidates on stage—ten at a minimum and twelve in the most recent on Tuesday. As a result, the debates have been too long (up to three hours) while simultaneously not giving candidates enough time to talk. Governor Jay Inslee had only five minutes of airtime in the first debate, and Yang spoke for less than twenty minutes total in the first three debates. How are lesser known candidates supposed to attract new supporters if they only speak for three minutes an hour?

Limiting the size of the debate stage to a maximum of eight candidates would help address the problem, as would separating higher polling candidates from lower polling ones. The “main stage” and “kiddie table” debate format Republicans followed in their 2016 primary is preferable to the Democrats’ 2020 system. Of course, Democrats would have needed two kiddie tables this time, but that still would have been better than allowing Marianne Williamson to share the stage with Biden and Warren before the latter two got to share the stage with each other.

The DNC should also be more transparent with the criteria required to qualify for the debates. They have consistently not announced the requirements until less than three months before the debate, not giving candidates sufficient notice of what targets to aim for. Amy Klobuchar or Beto O’Rourke, for example, may have campaigned differently if they knew before September that they could qualify for the fifth debate by polling above five percent in just two early state polls.

But perhaps even more than the number of candidates on stage, the format of the debate is responsible for not giving candidates—especially lesser known ones—enough opportunities to make their case. One problem is that moderators rarely ask each candidate the same questions. They appear more inclined to try to provoke them into disagreeing.

In both the third and fourth debates, for example, significant chunks of time were dedicated to health care. But rather than letting every candidate articulate their positions, the moderators pressed them with pointed questions about Medicare for All, which were often focused entirely on the frontrunners. In the third debate, George Stephanopolous asked Biden if Bernie Sanders and Warren were “pushing too far beyond where Democrats want to go and where the country needs to go?”  He tried to provoke Amy Klobuchar by asking, “Who represents the extreme on this stage?”

Refraining from repeating the same topics over and over again would be beneficial, as well. Health care had already been discussed at length in the previous debates before it dominated the beginning of the two most recent ones. It’s wasteful to repeat the same topics in back to back debates while largely ignoring other major issues like climate change or political reform. The format recently suggested by Jennifer Rubin—picking four topics per debate and thirty minutes per topic—is worth pursuing.

Another tweak to improve the debates is limiting or eliminating the “invocation rule,” which gives candidates additional time on a given topic if another candidate calls them out by name. While candidates should be given time to speak on major issues beyond their initial statements, or respond to a direct criticism, the invocation rule has heavily skewed speaking time in favor of the frontrunners. They are, after all, more likely to be mentioned by the other candidates.

Indeed, Biden and Warren have thus far spoken more than 50 percent more than all of the other candidates on average. If the debates are supposed to offer every candidate a roughly equal chance to participate, rather than rewarding the current polling leaders, abandoning the invocation rule would better serve those interests. The DNC could allow a one minute or ninety second follow-up for each candidate on a given topic, which would also allow them to respond d to any criticisms.

There are other, more novel ideas, as well. Lee Drutman has proposed a debate that puts candidates in charge of responding to a simulated crisis—imagine “a cyberattack takes down the power grid in Atlanta” or “a sudden financial market collapse leaves several mid-size commercial banks temporarily unable to fulfill depositor withdrawals, and instead they must rely on FDIC insurance.” Sounds bizarre, but that kind of debate would reveal quite a bit about how candidates respond to an emergency. It would also show which candidates possess valuable institutional knowledge, and which are making things up as they go along. I occasionally daydream about how such a debate would have played out in 2016. Hillary Clinton would have likely overwhelmed voters with her expertise. Donald Trump, meanwhile, would have stumbled through some variation of telling the country: “I will call all the best people, and tell them to do the greatest things, and we will solve the problem so fast it will make your head spin.”

Or what about an alternative format in which a set of questioners grill each candidate individually, similar to the way a Supreme Court nominee is put under the hot seat, for 30 minutes? At the very least, this format would better test the depths of candidates’ knowledge and prevent moderators from trying to goad candidates into duking it out.

To be sure, viewers seeking a more in depth exploration of each individual candidates’ positions have been able to turn CNN’s and MSNBC’s town halls. The problem is, few Democratic voters have watched them. CNN’s forums on climate change and LGBTQ issues have received about ten percent of the viewership of the debates. That’s because the debates will always be the main event, and the DNC should do what is necessary to incorporate the virtues of the town halls into the debate format.

A crisis response or cross examination debate is admittedly unlikely in this primary, but there are many things the DNC can do to make the debates more valuable to both the candidates and the voters. The DNC can transform the debates from soundbite theater that too often results in banal platitudes and canned zingers into a more nuanced discussion. But it first has to realize that it’s time to change. If it does, it can provide the country with an invaluable service: a genuine and rigorous test of every presidential candidate.

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David Edward Burke

David Edward Burke is a Washington Monthly contributing writer and the founder of Citizens Take Action, a nonprofit organization focused on campaign finance reform and increasing civic engagement.