After sharp criticism of their 2016 presidential primary cycle, the Democratic National Committee promised the 2020 primary debates would be more fair. At first it appeared it would be better with earlier debates, low entrance criteria and candidates in the first round being split randomly instead of into “Varsity and JV.” However, the efforts were in vain as the cable television debate format is fundamentally flawed.
The frontrunners in a debate are asked more questions and are asked questions earlier. Elizabeth Warren, the highest polling candidate in the first debate, was given her second question before the bottom six candidates were asked their first. She was able to make an impression earlier. The beginning of a debate is presumably the most watched, as some viewers may go to sleep or get bored. Compare that to Andrew Yang during the second night of debates, who only received two questions. The entire point of the early debates was to give a chance to long shots, and the frontrunner bias is counterintuitive to that goal.
Luck is part of who “wins” a debate. The NBC moderators would often ask a question to a candidate and then ask the same question to others. Whoever answers first has an advantage, as they get credit for taking the party position. If the next candidate also holds the same position, they appear to be just copying the previous candidate and look bad. The size of the debate meant not all candidates got to touch on every topic. Julian Castro gave heartwarming support towards ending the gender pay gap, due to his story about being raised by a single mom. While other candidates gave their takes on the family separation on the border, John Delaney wasn’t allowed to tell the story of his grandfather being separated from his family when he came to America. Delaney was arbitrarily denied given what could have been his best answer of the night. Unsurprisingly, Delaney was considered a loser of the debate, and Castro a winner.
Everyone claims to hate “attack” politics, but we clearly love it. The most viral moment in the debates was Kamala Harris dissing Joe Biden for being against “bussing” in the 70s. Ironically, Harris at one point insisted “America does not want to witness a food fight.” Harris didn’t really bring out any policies or ideas outside of the mainstream Democratic platform, but was considered the big winner of the first round. The audience gave applause during the debates, even though they were not supposed to. When we hear cheers from the crowd, we are influenced into thinking the answer was good. The problem is the crowd is not an accurate representation of the country. 270 of the 300 seats of the Miami debates were given to “grassroot supporters, elected officials, and community leaders.” The remaining 30 were sold at a price of $1750 each. These people do not represent the average American, they are political elites whom the irony of clapping to “we need to be the party of the working class” is lost. The debate should not have an audience, as they cause a bias.
The biggest bias is from the moderators. They are not politically neutral, they are commentators who make a living shouting their political opinions all day. This is even worse in the general election, as Republicans and Democrats feel they have “home-field advantage” depending on what station the debate is on. Allowing private companies to host the debates is questionable since they are incentivized to increase the number of viewers, not the quality of the debate. The networks love the conflict'; it brings in viewers. They don’t care if a candidate has something important to say, as going to ad break is of the utmost importance. Giving time to popular candidates makes viewers happy, so they are unfair in allotting time. Moving debates to PBS is a potential solution, as they do not rely on ad revenue and are theoretically politically neutral. Banning advertisements during the debate might remove some of the improper incentives. The stations also worry about offending their sponsors, which limits the questions they moderators can ask.
The biggest improvement in providing a platform is exogenous to the actions of the DNC, candidates appearing on long form podcasts, and “town halls” on CNN, Fox News and MSNBC. Pete Buttigieg’s performance on his CNN town hall in March is what made him a serious candidate. Podcasts like “The Joe Rogan Experience” and Charlamagne tha God’s “The Breakfast Club” interviewing presidential candidates is important because they provide a perspective you won’t see on cable news and are not restrained by the orders of network executives. These podcasts have good faith conversations with nominees and ask the questions normal people are thinking.
Still, the debates are the preeminent stage for elections. The second night of debates drew 18.1 million viewers, a record for the Democratic party. The DNC failed to make significant changes to presidential primary season. 20+ nominees is an unwieldy field. In 2016 the Republicans had 17 candidates in a similar debate set up. The result was President Donald Trump.
Matthew Nota is a contributor for The Daily Campus. He can be reached via email at Matthew.firstname.lastname@example.org.