The Democratic presidential primary debates this week are poised to become mad-dash attempts by the respective candidates to condense the most policy points, biographical details, and political jabs into an incredibly finite period of time.
That, at least, is what the campaigns are prepping for as they take the stage in Miami over the course of two evenings in what will be the first time they square off with each other. The realities of television and an immensely crowded primary field have made it virtually impossible for an actual exchange of ideas to be had. And so aides and advisers are preparing for a free-for-all, in which the candidates are competing for the most important commodity in politics: the chance to actually be heard.
“With this number of candidates on the stage, they really are not debates,” said Matt Butler, a Democratic operative who served as deputy campaign manager to former Sen. Chris Dodd’s 2008 presidential campaign. “Not everyone is going to get equal time. So you really have to figure out the one or two points you want to make. And if you get the opportunity to get a good line in you have to take it. You cannot wait.”
Exactly how much time any candidate gets will largely depend on the moderators. The debates are each set to last two hours, or 120 minutes. But there will also be four commercial breaks, and closing remarks for each candidate, and the time it takes for moderators to ask the questions, as well as the inevitable give-and-take that happens around certain exchanges. The amount of time candidates will actually get to speak could, operatives say, generously be about 100 minutes, which will be broken up into 60-second segments for candidates to answer questions and 30 second segments to respond to follow ups.
With 10 candidates on the stage, the most equitable disbursement of time would see each given 10 minutes. Except, no one expects the also-rans to get as much oxygen as the front runners. Aides to several middle-tier candidates said they expected their bosses to get roughly five to six minutes total to speak. Others expect less, citing the likelihood that the moderators will allow the top-tier candidates to squabble, especially when former Vice President Joe Biden and Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT) square off on the second night.
For those who have done debate prep in the past, such a small window presents immense challenges.
“If you’re [Julian] Castro, you may get two bites at the apple,” said Philippe Reines, who helped run debate prep for Hillary Clinton during the 2016 election. “And is your two bites saying, ‘Hi, I’m Julian Castro and this is what I stand for,’ or is it, ‘Beto [O’Rourke] and I have both been in Texas and I’m less of a fuck up.’”
During the course of one afternoon, Reines subjected Daily Beast reporters to a mock primary debate to provide a sense of those difficult choices and time constraints that candidates will face.
“Senator Gillibrand,” Reines started, armed with briefing papers and a one-minute sand timer, “there’s an issue that’s come up in this race that many are surprised by, which specifically is your vocal calls for your former colleague Al Franken to resign from the Senate over several instances of #MeToo.”
“All your colleagues—there are seven senators running—called [for it]. But you were most vocal, and you have been most vocal since in defending your answer. You’re standing on stage with Vice President Biden, who, while a different situation, has had his own issues in the months prior to and since running for president. If Vice President Biden had been a senator, and you were serving with him, would you have called for his resignation the way you did Al Franken’s?”
As for Biden, Reines had more pointed questions. “Do you pledge to put a woman on your ticket if you are the nominee? Some of your other competitors, including [Sen.] Cory Booker (D-NJ), have pledged it. Let’s just say you’re the nominee. The question is to you: Will you pledge to put a woman on the ticket?”
Reines turned to a possible question for Mayor Pete Buttigieg. “How can you, with a straight face, say that you’re better equipped for the most difficult job in the country, maybe the world, than someone like Vice President Biden?” he asked.
In the past, presidential candidates have bemoaned just how little time the debate formats afford them. Some have even made the perception that they’re being short-changed a rallying cry for their candidacies. Butler, for one, helped create a so-called “Talk Clock” in 2007 to keep tabs of just how many seconds each candidate was getting to speak in their debate forums after it became readily apparent that his boss was being largely ignored. In one debate, the clock showed that the moderator, CNN’s Wolf Blitzer had spoken for 14 minutes and 53 seconds while Dodd had talked for all of seven minutes and ten seconds.
But other campaign veterans caution that candidates stand little to gain from changing their approach based on how little time they may be getting.
“There is only so much room. You have to drive a consistent story line over and over again that makes strategic sense,” said Jonathan Prince, a former Democratic consultant who served as deputy campaign manager for John Edwards 2008 presidential campaign. “When you have resource limitations it makes triage more important. But the truth is triage is always important on a campaign. You always put the most effort into things that have the highest return.”
Instead, the optimal approach would be to use the five or so minutes that the debates afford and emphasize the actual message that the campaign has already determined best works.
“If you go in there and try to hit a home run every time you swing you are going to strike out,” said Tad Devine, who served as the chief strategist on Sanders’ 2016 campaign. “You have to be deliberate about this. You have to have a message and deliver it. You have to stay in the moment and try to connect to people.”