The Corner

Elections

Get Ready for Many, Many Hours of Democratic Presidential-Primary Debates

Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand talks to the media after announcing that she is forming an exploratory committee to enter the 2020 presidential race in Sioux City, Iowa, January 18, 2019. (Scott Morgan/Reuters)

Right now, the Democratic presidential field includes nine declared candidates: New Jersey Senator Cory Booker, South Bend mayor Pete Buttigieg, former HUD secretary Julian Castro, Maryland Representative John Delaney, Hawaii Representative Tulsi Gabbard, New York Senator Kirsten Gillibrand, California Senator Kamala Harris, Minnesota Senator Amy Klobuchar, and Massachusetts Senator Elizabeth Warren.

In the coming weeks and months, the field may grow to include former vice president Joe Biden, former New York City mayor Mike Bloomberg, Ohio senator Sherrod Brown, former Colorado governor John Hickenlooper, Washington governor Jay Inslee, former Virginia governor Terry McAuliffe, former attorney general Eric Holder, Massachusetts representative Seth Moulton, former Texas representative Beto O’Rourke, Ohio representative Tim Ryan, and Vermont senator Bernie Sanders.

That would be another eleven, and there may be other lesser known — even lesser known? — figures in the party contemplating a campaign.

Today the Democratic National Committee set out the rules for participation in the first two primary debates, which will be held in June and July. (MSNBC will air the first one, CNN the second one.) The party expects to hold each debate over two nights, splitting the candidates into two groups — no earlier-in-the-evening “undercard” debate like the Republicans had in 2016.

To qualify for the debate, a presidential candidate must reach one percent in three separate polls of either the national or one of the early nominating states of Iowa, New Hampshire, South Carolina, or Nevada. Even if a candidate can’t reach that low polling threshold, they can still qualify by having 65,000 donors, with at least 200 donors in 20 states. They set out a system of tiebreakers if more than 20 candidates meet this criteria.

There aren’t many good options when you have 20 or so candidates, but Democrats have put together a formula for chaos. Assuming each night has ten candidates, a two-hour debate will leave each candidate with twelve minutes, and that’s not accounting for time for introductions, questions, and audience responses such as laughter or applause. (Candidates’ inability to resist the temptation to go for slogans or hackneyed applause lines is one reason debate organizers should contemplate not having audience.) If you limit each candidate to three minutes to answer a question, one quarter of the debate will pass before you move on to the second question.

There is an option to give candidates more time, which is to (groan) let the debates go longer than two hours, maybe running three hours. The September 16, 2015 Republican presidential-primary debate ran more than three hours. Right now, each debate would be at least four hours spread over two nights; by July, we will have eight hours of Democrats debating each other. If the debates are three hours long, by July we will have twelve hours of debates.

Debates very much suffer from the tragedy of the commons — what’s best for each individual candidate is not best for the group as a whole. Candidates will desperately want a memorable “YouTube moment,” and they’ll know one of the ways to generate one is through confrontation or interrupting another candidate’s answer. Putting ten people on a stage only increases the pressure to stand out from a sizable crowd of candidates. (When the moderator says, “Senator,” half the people on stage will respond, “Yes?”)

Something to Consider

If you enjoyed this article, we have a proposition for you: Join NRPLUS. Members get all of our content (including the magazine), no paywalls or content meters, an advertising-minimal experience, and unique access to our writers and editors (conference calls, social-media groups, etc.). And importantly, NRPLUS members help keep NR going. Consider it?

If you enjoyed this article, and were stimulated by its contents, we have a proposition for you: Join NRPLUS.

LEARN MORE

Most Popular

Culture

Cold Brew’s Insidious Hegemony

Soon, many parts of the United States will be unbearably hot. Texans and Arizonans will be able to bake cookies on their car dashboards; the garbage on the streets of New York will be especially pungent; Washington will not only figuratively be a swamp. And all across America, coffee consumers will turn their ... Read More
National Security & Defense

The Warmonger Canard

Whatever the opposite of a rush to war is — a crawl to peace, maybe — America is in the middle of one. Since May 5, when John Bolton announced the accelerated deployment of the Abraham Lincoln carrier group to the Persian Gulf in response to intelligence of a possible Iranian attack, the press has been aflame ... Read More
Immigration

The Merit of Merit-Based Immigration

Having chain-migrated his way into the White House and a little bit of political power, Donald Trump’s son-in-law is shopping around an immigration plan. And if you can get past the hilarious juxtaposition of the words “merit-based” and “Jared Kushner,” it’s a pretty good one. As things stand, the ... Read More
NR Webathon

Socialism Is about Taking, Not Giving

The snakiest of snake-oil pitches goes like this: Give us some of your freedom and we’ll take care of you. Socialists have been making similar claims back as far as Plato. The end result doesn’t have to be Venezuela. It can just be . . . Europe. What’s wrong with Europe? Despite a turn away from ... Read More
NR Webathon

We’ve Had Bill Barr’s Back

One of the more dismaying features of the national political debate lately is how casually and cynically Attorney General Bill Barr has been smeared. He is routinely compared to Roy Cohn on a cable-TV program that prides itself on assembling the most thoughtful and plugged-in political analysts and ... Read More