Understanding the Democratic Presidential Primary Debates

Tonight, a slate of ten candidates for the Democratic party nomination to be President will spar on stage in front of CNN cameras with the goal of becoming their party’s nominee.  The primary debates are an important rhetorical feature of our American deliberations about politics.  Here are some important insights about the events many will watch on tonight and Wednesday:

1. 15 to 18 million viewers watched debate number one for Democrats

These televised debates are tremendously popular.  They are far more popular than almost any TV show regularly broadcast.  Consequently, these “debates” represent a tremendous coup for the media that desperately needs viewers at a time when people are quitting regular news in droves.  In 2020, the general election debates will likely attract 50-90 million viewers.  At that point, these events become comparable to the Super Bowl, which remains one of the most-watched TV events in the world.  The first debate in 2016 between Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump broke previous debater viewership records.  Some of the most-watched debates in history include the Reagan/Carter debate of 1980 and the Palin/Biden debate of 2008.  These two debates are general election debates, which are much more popular. The numbers for these Democratic primary debates are much larger than they were for Democrats in 2016 and much more comparable to the numbers Republicans were drawing for their primary debates in 2016. 

2.  These are not true debates

These events continue to focus on the media outlets rather than the candidates.  The questions are chosen by the media outlets.  The time frames allowed for candidate response are so short that almost no known format of high school or college debate resembles this event established by the media.  These debates will create a higher familiarity in the public about the media moderators than the candidates.  This is the principal agenda of news outlets -- to raise the public stature of pundits like Rachel Maddow who would increasingly find it difficult to attract an audience of such a size if she wanted to deliver a monologue on impeachment.  The candidates provide a pretext to this outsized moderator role that is becoming endemic to the Presidential debating process.  The potential for honest debate in politics to resolve pernicious political issues is high, as my colleague Dr. Robert Denton and I point out in our 2017 book.  However, Americans find themselves subject to a process of spectatorship where media actors curate controversial topics like immigration and abortion in order to achieve a preconceived outcome.  The distortion of debate as an idea damages our ability to publicly resolve conflicts.  In many respects, the Mueller hearing, with competing views from Democrats and Republicans, was more indicative of true debate.

True debates would take the field of 24 candidates and allow them to complete a debate tournament process where they would be debating mutually agreeable topics, with reasonable time limits, and mutually agreeable adjudicators.  These debates would feature head-to-head contests that were one-on-one rather than 10 people fighting for the floor at the same moment.  After preliminary rounds of approximately eight debates, candidates would be eligible to advance to elimination-round debates based on whether they won more than half of their preliminary round debates.  Hundreds of debate professionals across America are familiar with the tournament process that could reveal a winner of debates.  These debates would also vastly clarify the candidate positions compared to the 30 to 90-second sound bites they are reduced to in the current debates.  The debates between Cruz and Sanders on health care and other topics were much closer to actual debates because the two advocates could meaningfully clarify their positions.

3.  Kamala Harris is leading the pack with regard to debate ability

After scoring both of the Democratic primary debates in June, it is apparent that Kamala Harris won the limited format offered to these candidates.  Her prosecutorial background combined with politics makes her a serious threat to the typical anointing of a nominee that the DNC and the RNC typically like to engage in through this process.  Joe Biden did not turn in a strong performance in debate number one.  It is worth noting that studies of Presidential debates show that incumbents almost always lose debate number one.  Though Biden is not technically an incumbent, he certainly occupies that presumption in the current selection process.  Harris did effectively prepare and overwhelm the Biden team on the historical questions surrounding segregation.  Harris has the potential to reconcile the more extreme and centrist elements of her party. The debate process -- distorted as it is -- does have the potential to disrupt the conventional predetermination of nomination conducted by the parties.  Elizabeth Warren is another candidate with intrinsic debate skills that may prosper from a more legitimate format.  It is also worth noting that whoever the best debater is in a process like this may not be the best candidate for the party.

The public should continue to press for true debate on topics of controversy.  The large audiences drawn to these primary debates on television points to a public that craves a substantive fill to the vacuum of critical thinking created by our ideologically reactionary intellectual culture.  This craving points to the profound virtue and moral compass found in the essential beacon of our Bill of Rights -- Freedom of Speech.  The orchestration and curation of news needs to yield to a more robust public sphere where people are more free to speak to the content of their minds on controversial issues. 

Ben Voth is an associate professor of communication and Director of Debate at Southern Methodist University as well as the Calvin Coolidge Debate Fellow. 

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