How Many Debates Do Primary Voters Need?

by Kevin Kelton

As the date of first Democratic primary debate approaches, a lot of the party faithful are up in arms because DNC Chair Debbie Wasserman Schultz is holding firm to the previously approved plan to hold only six debates during the 2016 primary season. Minor candidates and their minions are screaming that six is not enough when the Republicans will have 11, starting sooner and ending later in the primary season. But while the Martin O’Malleys of the world cry foul, most rational people realize that six face-offs is in fact the Goldilocks sweet spot: not too few, not too many… and probably just right.

The DNC chose six because of what they learned the hard way in 2004 and 2008, when 15 and 25 debates respectively almost bored voters to tears. This time around, with the primaries starting later (again not to bore voters) and fewer candidates, the DNC wisely concluded that saturating the airwaves with Clinton and Company for nine months would’ve been overkill. Here’s four reasons why the current debate schedule was a smart choice.

  1. Four of those debates are scheduled before the first votes are cast in Iowa or New Hampshire. That is plenty of chance for candidates to present themselves to Democratic voters and for voters to learn about the candidates. Here’s the current debate schedule. Notice that three of them take place on the major broadcast networks that can deliver mass audiences, not rinky-dink cable news outlets that typically deliver only 2-3 million viewers. And notice that none of them air on MSNBC or FOX News… which may be why those two networks are screaming the loudest for more debates.
    • October 13 – CNN – Nevada
    • November 14 – CBS – Iowa
    • December 19 – ABC – New Hampshire
    • January 17 – NBC – South Carolina
    • February 19 – PBS – Wisconsin
    • March 9 – Univision – Florida
  2. Unlike previous election cycles – and quite unlike this year’s GOP field – the Democrats have a very manageable number of candidates. On the high end, there will be six on stage. (Hillary Clinton, Bernie Sanders, Martin O’Malley, Jim Webb, Lincoln Chafee, and if he gets in, Joe Biden.) Once the long shots start dropping out, it could be only two or three. That means that each debate will offer the candidates plenty of stage time to compare and contrast themselves. Indeed, each Democratic candidate will get more speaking time in their six debate sessions than any GOP candidate will get in their eleven marathon outings (some with two debates per night).
  3. If the race is still not settled in March, the DNC can easily add more debates. But that’s a decision better left to then, instead of booking debates now that could be moot if a clear nominee emerges early.
  4. Does anyone really want to listen to Bernie Sanders yell or Hillary Clinton cackle for more than 12 cumulative hours of our lives?

The truth is, the only reason this is even an issue is that trailing candidates always scream for more debates (hoping for something that can trip up the frontrunner) and cable networks are always angling for more debates (hoping for viewers who are normally watching The Big Bang Theory on four different stations – maybe the saddest comment on our democracy).

So everyone take a deep breath, calm down, and just let the process play out. Bernie will have his moments to shine. Hillary will have her moments to be human. Joe, if he enters, will have his moments to regret that decision. And Lincoln, Martin and Jim? Well, they’ll all have their moments to pretend that they ever really had a snowball’s chance in hell.

9 thoughts on “How Many Debates Do Primary Voters Need?”

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