The Democratic National Committee (DNC) decided to sponsor only six Democratic Primary debates this election cycle, as opposed to the 17 that took place in 2008 and 10 that the Republican National Committee (RNC) has scheduled this year. Most suspect that the DNC decided to lessen the number of debates this year because Chairwoman Debbie Wasserman Schultz and other party leaders seek to protect Clinton’s status as frontrunner to strengthen her position for the general election.
Other candidates seeking the Democratic nomination have spoken out in complaint, as have DNC Vice Chairs Congresswoman Tulsi Gabbard and former Minneapolis Mayor R.T. Rybak. Of the small number of debates, the two wrote, “It limits the ability of the American people to benefit from a strong, transparent, vigorous debate between our Presidential candidates.”
Yet while the dominant media narrative has centered around how the dearth has damaged the primary of Clinton’s primary opponents — namely, Bernie Sanders and Martin O’Malley — there is a more significant consequence to the lack of debates: The eventual Democratic nominee will have less of a chance to engage with voters and stir excitement leading up to the general election.
The past two Republican debates have kept Democrats largely out of the spotlight. Though some Republican candidates did embarrass the GOP, such as Donald Trump in his exchange with Megyn Kelly, the debates give Republicans an early start to reach out to voters. Research for the European Institute for Communication and Culture suggests that televised debates can galvanize voters and increase voter turnout. This would be extremely helpful for a party trying to engage voters for the General Election. And, in comparison to campaign advertisements, this exposure comes for free.
Democrats are missing out on this opportunity. Former DNC official Simon Rosenberg, who has criticized the current debate schedule as insufficient, noted that this level of engagement is crucial to building the base of small donors and volunteers helpful in winning a general election. Rosenberg even estimated that the Republican debate schedule could “easily reach 50 to 100 million more eyeballs than the current Democratic schedule.” These are voters that the Democrats could have begun to excite for the general election.
In reducing the amount of debates scheduled this season, the DNC misses out on a critical opportunity to engage with voters and stir excitement leading up to the general election.
Unlike the rabble rousing of the GOP primary, the Democratic primary race has featured extremely few attacks between Democrats. Sanders has repeatedly refused to attack Clinton, telling Chris Cillizza of the Washington Post, “Time after time I am being asked to criticize Hillary Clinton. That’s the sport that you guys like. The reason this campaign is doing well is we’re talking about the issues that impact the American people.” O’Malley has also largely resisted attacking Clinton directly, possibly to remain a viable running mate for Clinton. This should make for a more civil debate for Clinton, thus — if the DNC is looking to act in her interest — reducing the need to cut back on the number of debates.
This was evident during the first Democratic debate, in which Sanders tried to avoid directly attacking her. For example, when asked directly if he was tougher on climate change than Clinton, Sanders responded by simply listing his accomplishments on the issue and chastising Republicans for “deny[ing] the realities of climate change.” Nowhere in his response did he even mention Clinton. At one point, Sanders may have even helped the former secretary of state by dismissing her email scandal as unworthy of the national spotlight.
O’Malley and former Senator Lincoln Chafee were more quick to attack Clinton. Even so, these relatively minor candidates received significantly less speaking time than did Clinton and Sanders, and such attacks did not prevent Clinton from coming out of the debate favorably.
Given the bickering Trump has inspired during the last two RNC debates, more Democratic debates could encourage the party to differentiate itself on the quality of its candidates and discourse. Since the Democratic primary contest has yet to suffer from major personal attacks between contenders, debates are more likely to focus on policy issues in contrast to those of the Republicans, which have been full of political theater. The first Democratic debate was notably policy-oriented, giving Clinton the platform to differentiate her party in preparation for the general election. “I think what you did see is that, in this debate, we tried to deal with some of the very tough issues facing our country,” she stated towards the end of the program. “That’s in stark contrast to the Republicans who are currently running for president.”
It is true that the televised debates could increase infighting between Democratic hopefuls (mostly through moderator questions that pit candidates against each other), but there is good reason to believe that these potential quarrels will not be nearly as heated as those of the Republicans; before the Republican debates even began, candidates were quick to attack each other head-on (notable examples include a well-publicized spat between Scott Walker and Jeb Bush over the Iran deal, as well as Rick Perry’s attacks on Donald Trump).
Presuming Clinton becomes the eventual nominee, DNC leaders are reasonably concerned that facing off with noted progressives Sanders and O’Malley will pressure Clinton to take policy positions too liberal for the general electorate. However, it is important to note that laying out progressive policies (albeit sensible ones) could actually end up helping Clinton in the general election; she has and will use her progressive stances on gun control and immigration to gain enthusiasm from voters who support the more liberal agenda of Bernie Sanders, who has mixed records on both issues. When Clinton attacked Sanders for his past votes against the Brady Bill, a prominent piece of gun safety legislation in the first Democratic debate, the audience reacted with applause. Her increasingly progressive position could help fill the enthusiasm gap Democrats face going into 2016, energizing the base and increasing Democratic turnout in the general election.
Hosting more debates could aid the party in voter engagement and interest going into the general election. The probability of the DNC actually altering the debate schedule seems unlikely at this point, which should come to the dismay of those who plan to support the party in the general.
Photo: Lord Mariser