D.N.C. Needs To Have The "Debate Debate" Sooner Rather Than Later

[ Posted Thursday, November 29th, 2018 – 17:52 UTC ]

Up until this point, I have refrained from speculating much about the 2020 election, for the very good reason that the 2018 election hadn't even happened yet. But now that the midterms are over and done with, it becomes time to look ahead to the future. Today I'm going to dip my toe in the 2020 presidential waters, but not plunge in fully. In other words, this is going to be a neutral article about the process for the next primary election cycle. Consider yourselves duly warned.

The Democratic National Committee has already made some rather large changes to the 2020 nominating process. The biggest of which was successfully (and rather elegantly) stripping all decision-making power from the superdelegates. They can still show up at the nominating convention, and they can still (eventually) cast a vote for the guy or gal who has already won, but that's it -- they no longer will be able to put their collective thumb on the scale. Other big changes have already been made as well, including several states changing from holding caucuses to holding primary elections instead. Caucuses are fun and quaint and all of that, but they just incredibly inconvenient for far too many people. Plus, there's the whole "no secret ballot -- everyone gets to see who you vote for" thing as well. Multiple states have now done away with caucuses and will hold Democratic primary elections instead. This could change the dynamic of the whole race, considering how well Barack Obama and Bernie Sanders did in the caucus states in the old system. Whether this will be a change for the better or not remains to be seen, in other words.

But there's another sticking point that arose in the 2016 election cycle that is going to be incredibly important in the 2020 race, and that is how the candidate debates will be conducted. The last time around, the system was gamed by one particular candidate, which absolutely should not be allowed to happen next time. Democrats should hold as many debates as they think the public will pay attention to, for starters. Limiting the number of debates to favor a particular candidate should be a thing of the past, period.

There are other major changes to the debate format which are going to be crucial for the 2020 cycle, though. The last time around, there were only a maximum of five candidates on the stage, because that was the sum total of Democrats who ran serious presidential campaigns. And that was only for the first debate -- by the second one, the field had narrowed to three candidates, and then most of the rest of the debates were one-on-one matchups between the two strongest candidates.

In 2020, however, there will almost certainly be more Democratic candidates. A whole lot more candidates, in fact. So the rules for the Democratic debates need to be settled a long time before we get there.

The inevitable next article I will probably write about the 2020 campaign will be to make an attempt at rounding up all the possible Democratic candidates who could throw their hats in the presidential ring. Just off the top of my head, without consulting anything, here is just a partial list of who could run (in no particular order):

  • Elizabeth Warren
  • Bernie Sanders
  • Kamala Harris
  • Cory Booker
  • Amy Klobuchar
  • Tammy Duckworth
  • Sherrod Brown
  • Ron Wyden
  • Kirsten Gillibrand
  • Joe Biden
  • Beto O'Rourke
  • Deval Patrick
  • Gavin Newsom
  • Jerry Brown
  • John Hickenlooper
  • Andrew Cuomo
  • Michael Bloomberg
  • Tom Steyer
  • Michael Avenatti
  • Mark Cuban

Now, that's just off the top of my head, and that list has twenty people on it. I should mention that Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez is not on that list for the sole reason that she will not be old enough to run for president. Astonishing, but true! Hillary Clinton is not on the list either, but probably should be (do the Clintons ever really quit running?). And, heck, Michael Moore might just run a ficus tree, who knows?

Kidding aside, though, that's an awfully long list. And as I mentioned, this is just a partial list -- I'm sure there's at least a half-dozen other folks I have momentarily forgotten about. Not all of them will actually run, of course, but it's pretty easy to see that the 2020 Democratic field is going to likely be as large as (and possible a whole lot larger) than the Republican 2016 field. And remember the problems they had with debates?

This is why the debate about debates needs to happen sooner, rather than later. After some bigwig candidates declare their bid, they will be trying to influence the process. Better to have the rules worked out in advance, so that they will be seen as fair to all and not influenced by anyone's campaign.

The Republicans had 17 candidates in 2016. Since this was way too many for one debate stage (each of them would have gotten only five minutes or so to speak if they had all been included, which is not much of a debate), they split it into the "undercard" and "main event" debates. Snarky left-wingers (ahem) immediately labelled them the "kiddie table" and "adult table" debates, it should be noted. The undercard folks debated earlier, when few were watching. The main candidates got primetime. This was determined by their standings in national polling. In the main event, the candidate with the best poll numbers (Donald Trump, every time) stood at the center of the stage, and those with the worst poll numbers (but still good enough for the main event) were literally relegated to the sidelines.

This is a workable formula, but is it the best or fairest format? Those questions were a very big deal in Republican circles last time around, and they are sure to be just as contentious for the passel of Democrats who will be running next year.

Would it work better if there were two debates, but on successive nights? That way both would get the primetime audience. And is it really fair to exclude those who aren't polling well on that criteria alone? Would it be better if the debate slots were chosen at random, or if they rotated somehow? The argument for this is that one candidate may be largely unknown when the first debates happen, but could have a breakout performance, which would immediately lead to: more campaign donations, more advertising, better name recognition, and (hopefully, for the next debate) a larger share in the polls. This has indeed happened before, so it's a rather powerful argument to make.

Take another look at that list, above. Which candidate would you vote for in a primary if all of them ran? Who would you vote for if your favorite decided not to run this time around, or had dropped out by the time your state voted? Those are important questions, but the bigger picture is even more important.

Donald Trump did amazingly well in a very wide candidate field. What does this say about having so many candidates? It says that if there are multiple very qualified candidates who are splitting the primary vote evenly, then they may not be able to successfully defeat one candidate who has captured as little as 20 or 25 percent of the Democratic electorate. What if, say, all the progressive candidates split the progressive vote so evenly that Michael Bloomberg wound up in the overall lead? Would that be a desirous outcome to the majority of Democrats?

The debates are going to be absolutely critical in such a large field. And from all indicators, it will be a very large field indeed -- at the least, a dozen qualified candidates will be running. At the most, perhaps two dozen.

That is just too many candidates for a single debate. So what is the Democratic National Committee going to do about this situation?

We need to have this "debate debate" as soon as possible. It won't be long before major candidates start declaring their candidacies. The question of how the Democratic debates should be structured needs to be answered sooner rather than later.

-- Chris Weigant


Follow Chris on Twitter: @ChrisWeigant


7 Comments on “D.N.C. Needs To Have The "Debate Debate" Sooner Rather Than Later”

  1. [1] 
    Patrick wrote:

    Article from the Washington Post 3 days ago

    To win in 2020, Democrats need a young nominee

    The average age of CW's 20 listed above is 61.4. If we used that as the cut-off criteria, the list would be reduced to 10.

  2. [2] 
    James T Canuck wrote:

    Biden. Sanders. Warren. Bloomberg. Booker.

    Biden ftw...though Bloomberg V Trump would make for an interesting presidential debate cycle.

    At this point though, considering the events of the last day, can we keep a straight face and imagine Trump in the 2020 race?

    I knew Felix Sater would, like a bad penny, show up again.

    Be reminded, not a single 'mainstream media outlet' would touch this aspect of Trump's sleazy business past during the 2016 election cycle...Trump 'the spectacle' drove news cycles, not Trump 'the fucking crook'.


  3. [3] 
    nypoet22 wrote:

    ha, bloomberg v. trump - which billionaire is smart enough to pass third grade?

  4. [4] 
    TheStig wrote:

    My contrbution to the great debarte debate. Democrats should model it on the collegiate basketball bracket system. Seeding gives the party officials something useful to do with their insider knowledge. Broadcast the debates on YouTube and it will be endlessly promoted and discussed across the many platforms of modern media.

  5. [5] 
    TheStig wrote:

    I would also like to see alcohol served during the great debate. To the canditates - the audience can fend for themselves on this matter. This is a variant of Jerry Springer's " Moonshine Law". - yeah, that Jerry Springer . That way viewers don't just hear what the candidates are saying...they have a pretty good idea of what the candidates are actually thinking.

  6. [6] 
    lharvey16 wrote:

    TheStig 5
    "Herodotus, the Greek historian, reported that the ancient Persians tended to deliberate on important matters while they were drunk. They then reconsidered their decisions the following day when they were sober. If it happened that their first deliberation took place when they were sober, they would always reconsider the matter under the influence of wine. If a decision was approved both drunk and sober, the decision held; if not, the Persians set it aside."

  7. [7] 
    Kick wrote:

    No need for any debates. Just award the nomination to Beto O'Rourke now and save lots of time and money. :)

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