Politics & Policy

Why Democrats Buried Their Debates at Times No One Will Watch

Democratic presidential candidates Sanders, Clinton, and O’Malley after a debate in Las Vegas on October 13, 2015 (Joe Raedle/Getty)

This Saturday night, millions of politically minded Iowans will cancel their evening plans, gather their families before the television’s warm glow, and steel themselves to perform their sacred duty: supporting the Iowa Hawkeyes football team.

And yes, maybe one or two will tune in to a few seconds of the Democratic presidential debate going on just down the street.

Hillary Clinton, Bernie Sanders, and Martin O’Malley will face off at Drake University in Des Moines, Iowa at 8 p.m. local time Saturday — at which point the undefeated Hawkeyes will be an hour into their battle with the Minnesota Golden Gophers.

The entire state of Iowa, first in the nation to voice a presidential preference in the February 1 caucus, will be glued to the game. The debate? Not so much. “It’s just gonna be you, and me, and the pundits, and a few other people watching,” veteran Democratic political strategist Bob Shrum tells National Review.

Top Democrats think it’s no accident the Democratic National Committee scheduled the debate on the night of the big game in Iowa, at a time when fewer voters nationwide will see it. They see collusion between DNC chairwoman Debbie Wasserman Schultz and Hillary Clinton’s campaign to insulate the Democratic front-runner from the potential challenges and embarrassments of a vibrant debate in front of a healthy audience.

“Do I think that the DNC almost certainly knew that the Iowa game was scheduled for 8 p.m., and now the debate is scheduled for [the same time]? Yes,” says Shrum. “If you want to diminish the audience for the debate, and if you want to protect the front-runner, you would do that.”

‘Do I think that the DNC almost certainly knew that the Iowa game was scheduled for 8 p.m., and now the debate is scheduled for [the same time]? Yes,’ says Shrum.

Some Democrats are angered by the blackout, especially because the next two debates before the Iowa caucus are also set for weekends. “It’s an embarrassment. It’s so Machiavellian and calculating,” says a prominent Obama bundler who supported Vice President Joe Biden’s prospective candidacy. “And there was no need for it.”

Even some of Clinton’s supporters are perturbed. “As far as I’m concerned, she needs to use these debates to show as many people as possible that she deserves to be the next president of the United States,” says one Democratic strategist backing the Clinton campaign. “Burying these debates like this isn’t going to help.”

With just six debates planned to the Republicans’ twelve, the DNC is already running an unusually sparse slate of contests. Former Maryland governor Martin O’Malley led a campaign to pressure the DNC to add more debates over the summer but was stymied by voter apathy and a recalcitrant Wasserman Schultz.

Less-noticed at the time was that half of those debates would be broadcast on weekends — one this Saturday in Iowa, another on a Saturday in New Hampshire six days before Christmas, and another on a mid-January Sunday in South Carolina.

#share#Of the 100 primary and general-election debates held since 2000, only seven have been on a Saturday. And weekend debates have historically earned low viewership. According to data compiled by Nielsen, relative viewership for general-election debates is very low on Fridays and Saturdays, much higher on Tuesdays and Wednesdays, and highest on Thursdays. Democrats have scheduled just one Thursday primary debate this cycle.

The DNC and the Clinton campaign would not comment on whether they deliberately scheduled Saturday’s debate to coincide with the Hawkeyes game, or whether the other debates were designed to limit voter scrutiny in key primary states. But the two remaining Democratic campaigns aren’t shy about expressing their frustration.

#related#Kristin Sosanie, O’Malley’s Iowa spokeswoman, says the DNC never consulted the chair of the state Democratic party on the timing of the lone Iowa debate. Robert Becker, the Iowa state director for Bernie Sanders’s presidential campaign, calls the entire debate lineup “a radical departure from how we have chosen nominees in the past.”

It’s not unprecedented for a party to limit debate audiences to protect its front-runner. The Clinton campaign is especially eager to avoid snatching defeat from the jaws of victory yet again. Sanders was ascendant in the early primary states when the debate schedule was first conceived, and the looming specter of a Biden candidacy haunted Clinton’s plans for a clean sweep through establishment territory like South Carolina and Nevada.

But with Biden declining to run and Sanders appearing to have peaked, the gamed debate schedule now seems gratuitous. And it could deprive Clinton of some much-needed practice before she faces a general-election opponent, something several Democrats say she will need if she faces off against Marco Rubio or another strong Republican debater.

Beyond forgoing the opportunity to hone her skills in preparation for a GOP candidate sharpened by twice as many debates, Shrum doesn’t think Clinton will pay a price for the DNC’s effort to limit her rivals’ exposure. “I don’t think people vote on process,” he says, explaining that only “egregious unfairness” would convince Democratic voters skeptical of a Clinton candidacy to turn away from her when she’s the nominee next fall.

Other Democrats are far less sanguine. They worry that the perceived collusion between Clinton and the DNC will turn off liberal voters already disgusted with the establishment’s political gamesmanship, and potentially keep them home come November 8, 2016.

“The worst of all possible outcomes is that Bernie Sanders supporters get turned off by this process, particularly if they get a sense that this is stacked against them all along,” says the former Obama bundler. “If they feel disrespected — or certainly that their candidate wasn’t given a fair shake — some of them may take that personally and say, ‘A pox on both your houses, we’re not voting.’”

— Brendan Bordelon is a political reporter for National Review.

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