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Value of Democratic Presidential Primary Debates Is Debatable

If memory serves, American voters have been treated to six nights of Democratic presidential primary debates between July and October of 2019.

At least three more will occur before the first votes are cast in the Iowa Democratic Caucuses in late January, 2020.

Sadly, not more than 14 to 16 million people have tuned in to any one of the debates – somewhere between 10 and 12 percent of registered voters in the country. That’s less than the total number of voters in California (19,978,449).

Three Reasons why Viewership is so Low

  1. Laser-Like Focus on Three Septuagenarians

Pollsters and the media created an early narrative around the three septuagenarians in the Democratic primary – based largely on the number of years they’ve been in public life – i.e. in front of the TV cameras. They have very high name identification among voters.

Does the media seriously believe that only a septuagenarian could beat the incumbent septuagenarian in November 2020?

Sixty (60) percent of voters in November 2020 will be less than 56 years old. Voters who grow up in a world of instant gratification fostered by innovation simply can’t relate to these old people with old ideas.

2. Focus on Candidates with Highest Name Recognition (not necessarily the best ideas)

Time spent in Washington is certainly rewarded in this scenario. Frustrated, some of the current governors and younger Senators — on the ends of the stage — have literally had to jump up and down for recognition.

Would the debate polling outcomes have been the same if the moderators had given equal opportunity to every candidate?

3. Predictable and Boring Recitations of Scripted Talking Points

We’ve all heard them before — even if we are trying not to pay attention. Bernie Sanders, please give the fist pumping “political revolution” a rest. What does that even mean?

There is no opportunity for a free flowing and illuminating point counter point “debate” among those gathered on the stage. These debates are not a “debate” at all.

The fact checking of these talking points is delayed by days and then reported primarily in East Coast newspapers – for example, the Washington Post – and seen by few.

Dysfunctional Debates Driven by Media Herd Mentality

What’s driving the limited value of these presidential debates?

The media.

Where are the Walter Cronkite’s or the Edward R. Murrow’s or any of the old school news commentators who focused on real substance? While newscasters of yesteryear cared about viewership, their programming was underscored by a passion to defend and promote our core American values.

Modern day media behaves like a herd — fawning over one candidate or another hoping for access and headlines to foster their own careers — rather than focusing on real issues.

For example, immediately following each debate there are the media “commentators” and former (usually defeated) politicians to announce debate night “winners and losers” based on their immediate reactions to the candidates’ “performances” and the “Twitter feed”.

Where are penetrating questions about the big issues confronting all of us? The follow up questions that seek to bring out facts and eliminate fuzziness?

At a time when the country desperately needs smart, energetic, practical, respectful leadership to counteract the last three years, these barometers are taking Democratic primary voters in the wrong direction.

Voters Need a Real Debate to Make a Real Choice

If Democrats cared about good government, heck if Republicans did either – they would find the low viewership of the six presidential primary debates to date with alarm. Only 30 million primary voters cast ballots in the two-way race between Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders in 2016.

The 2020 Democratic Primary field is far larger. Unless the candidates can generate far more enthusiasm across a much broader swath of the potential primary electorate, the winning mandate could be less than 10 million votes – an inauspicious beginning to a campaign against incumbent President Donald J. Trump.

Democratic candidates who want to increase voter enthusiasm and interest should demand different debates that begin with an honest look at principal issues facing the nation and then examine how substantive policy changes would impact the underlying problems.

Any Democratic primary candidate who really wants to “change” America rather than just make themselves the next resident at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue should start with the truth about national debt, growing budget deficits, and America’s indispensable role in the global order.

They would urge voters to embrace the common sacrifice needed from every American to “right-the-ship-of-state”.

Finally, they would frame debates to focus on explaining complex issues to voters, on offering solutions, and explaining to voters how their prior professional experience can engender confidence.

It is probably too late to change the trajectory of the 2020 primary and general election races.

Barring some unforeseen circumstance – we can look forward to a nasty election process in which the American people will once more be forced to make a choice between two equally unattractive options, an election where the world will look on – aghast, again.

Independents are now the largest political party in the United States. But because they are excluded from presidential primary elections in most states, historically they don’t pay close attention to the presidential primary debates.

That must change – if not in 2020, then certainly in 2024.

Nothing in the US Constitution or the Electoral College process limits the presidential election to two candidates from only two political parties – candidates chosen by only a few extreme, partisan voters from each party. In fact, the Founding Fathers created the Electoral College with the intent to prevent such a circumstance from arising.

It is time the broad center of American voters demand a larger voice and get more choices in presidential nominating primaries.

Graphic Courtesy of the New York Times

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