There will be no great winnowing. At least not yet.
After four nights of debates featuring more than 20 Democratic presidential candidates, the televised fall contests were supposed to be the moment where the party’s presidential field would be cut down to size.
But instead of entering the getting-serious phase of the race for the nomination, the Democratic National Committee, television networks and candidates themselves are bracing for a long haul—starting with the strong likelihood that enough candidates will qualify to require the debates to be split up again. Already nine candidates have secured spots for the Sept. 12-13 forum in Houston, and several others appear poised to qualify. At most, 10 candidates are expected to appear onstage together and a spokesperson for the DNC did not clarify how the group would be divided over two nights if more than 10 qualify. A recent DNC memo also granted the campaigns more time to qualify for the subsequent October contest, meaning that even more could potentially participate in the debates deeper into the fall.
Party officials and some campaign veterans insist that a crowded debate stage (or even two) isn’t an altogether bad thing. Many point out that voter engagement picks up much later in the fall, and argue that the eventual nominee will emerge battle-tested from a prolonged nomination process. At a minimum, party leadership will avoid the criticism that they got in 2016, when it was perceived that they tried to smooth things out for Hillary Clinton.
But there is also growing anecdotal evidence that Democratic primary voters are increasingly exhausted with the large field. And privately, some campaigns have grown eager to have the top-tier candidates onstage alone with each other, so as to showcase their direct policy contrasts.
The DNC seemed to be eager for that too. Following the first two debates, the committee raised the threshold for candidates to qualify, requiring any candidate to hit 2 percent in four polls, and have at least 130,000 unique donors, a measure intended to weed out the less serious contenders. But that criteria has had a perverse side-effect, insiders fear, by creating incentive structures for candidates that are largely unhelpful.
“Part of the reason why you saw Democrats attacking each other on the stage like that was because they were trying to make the debate eligibility requirements in September,” Jennifer Palmieri, the former director of communications for Hillary Clinton’s 2016 campaign and informal adviser for Montana Governor Steve Bullock’s campaign, said. “There are a lot of people on that stage that were trying to raise their profile a little bit so that they could hit 2 percent or they could have a viral moment that they could send around to email lists that they had to buy in order to make the 130,000 donor thing.”
The hunt for donors and poll numbers hasn’t just compelled candidates to try and create viral moments. It’s also pushed them towards spending small fortunes on digital advertising—and in some cases television ads. Those expenditures are designed to recruit enough small dollar donors to qualify for future debates. But it is costing them elsewhere. The money, campaign veterans argue, could go towards hiring staff and organizing in early states where the primary will actually be decided.
But the most bemoaned element of the hours-long debate slugfests is the amount of time struggling candidates have gotten to essentially operate as foils for some of their better-performing competitors. Many top Democrats have knocked the cable networks’ desire for conflict, saying it has distorted the political reality of the contest thus far.
“The DNC has a very hard job,” Brian Fallon, former Clinton national press secretary, said. “When they announced the enhanced criteria, the howls were loud that they were winnowing the field too soon. Now it appears the criteria was not strict enough. It has a distorting effect to put candidates barely touching 2 percent on the same footing as those who are consistently polling in the top four. The television networks' desire for conflict rewards the lower-tier candidates' willingness to go on the attack to draw more air time, like [former Rep. John] Delaney did with [Elizabeth] Warren and [Rep. Tulsi] Gabbard with [Kamala] Harris. But that does not honestly reflect the state of the race.”
Many television networks are more than happy to host the multi-night debates that the Democrats have embraced this election. Though the costs of planning, preparation, broadcast rights, and venue booking and setup are often steep for television networks—indeed, multiple sources told The Daily Beast that CBS did not bid on a debate this year, but was hoping to be given the final debate before early primaries early next year—a multi-night debate allows the networks to bring in more revenue to help rationalize those costs.
Whether there will be multi-night programming much longer is to be seen. It’s still possible that only nine or 10 candidates meet the requirements for the next two debates.
All told, the Democrats plan on holding 12 debates before the primary is over, with half taking place before the Iowa caucuses. While major networks like CNN and NBC expect they may get another debate before the year is out, others like PBS are also jockeying for a slot. Sources familiar told The Daily Beast that the DNC is even thinking about holding a second debate in Texas, the site of September’s debate on ABC.
The candidates, for their part, will continue to do their best to qualify for any future debate. But frustration with the criteria and formats is clearly growing.
“You shouldn’t even call them a debate,” Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT) recently said on “The Joe Rogan Experience.” “What they are is a reality TV show in which you have to come up with a soundbite and all that stuff. It’s demeaning to the candidates and it’s demeaning to the American people. You can’t explain the complexity of health care in America in 45 seconds, nobody can.”
Sen. Brian Schatz (D-HI), who stands out as one of the seemingly few Senate Democrats not running for the presidency, agreed that the current debates—which include time constraints and incentivize fighting—have not allowed for a deep exchange of ideas.
And he encouraged his colleagues not to partake in a process that was geared primarily towards showmanship.
“No one benefits from a game show format,” Schatz said in a message to The Daily Beast. “And if the moderators insists [sic] on trivializing the issues by turning this into a spectacle candidate[s] should change the game.”
Schatz said it’s up to the individuals onstage, not the DNC, to make the moments count.
“The debates will be helpful to voters if the candidates take control of them,” he said. “They don’t have to accept nonsense framing from pundits and Republicans. And the candidate who shows that they have the kind of media mastery and moral and political clarity to call BS on a game of politics Hollywood Squares will likely be our nominee.”