The Democratic debates left the underdogs behind

The Democratic debates left the underdogs behind
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After the first Democratic presidential debates, one thing is clear: they haven’t mattered much. Heading into the June debates, former Vice President Joe BidenJoe BidenHarry Reid: 'Decriminalizing border crossings is not something that should be at the top of the list' Warren offers plan to repeal 1994 crime law authored by Biden Panel: Jill Biden's campaign message MORE led Sens. Bernie SandersBernie SandersHarry Reid: 'Decriminalizing border crossings is not something that should be at the top of the list' The exhaustion of Democrats' anti-Trump delusions Warren offers plan to repeal 1994 crime law authored by Biden MORE (I-Vt.) and Elizabeth WarrenElizabeth Ann WarrenHarry Reid: 'Decriminalizing border crossings is not something that should be at the top of the list' Warren offers plan to repeal 1994 crime law authored by Biden Panel: Jill Biden's campaign message MORE (Mass.) 32.0 percent to 16.9 percent and 12.8 percent, respectively, according to Real Clear Politics’ daily poll composite.

Next were Sen. Kamala HarrisKamala Devi HarrisHarry Reid: 'Decriminalizing border crossings is not something that should be at the top of the list' Warren offers plan to repeal 1994 crime law authored by Biden Sanders leads Democratic field in Colorado poll MORE (D-Calif.) (7.0 percent) and South Bend Indiana Mayor Pete ButtigiegPeter (Pete) Paul ButtigiegSanders leads Democratic field in Colorado poll Poll: Trump trails three Democrats by 10 points in Colorado Castro qualifies for next Democratic primary debates MORE (6.6 percent). Former Rep. Beto O’Rourke (D-Texas), Sen. Cory BookerCory Anthony BookerCastro qualifies for next Democratic primary debates Eight Democratic presidential hopefuls to appear in CNN climate town hall Biden, Buttigieg bypassing Democratic delegate meeting: report MORE (D-N.J.), and Andrew YangAndrew YangCastro qualifies for next Democratic primary debates Eight Democratic presidential hopefuls to appear in CNN climate town hall Biden, Buttigieg bypassing Democratic delegate meeting: report MORE followed with 3.3 percent, 2.3 percent and 1.3 percent, respectively.

More than five weeks later, and after about 10 hours of presumably high-stakes debating, all eight of June’s highest-polling candidates remain the highest-polling candidates today, and their numbers are strikingly similar: 32.2 percent for Biden, 16.5 percent for Sanders, 14.0 percent for Warren, 10.3 percent for Harris, 5.5 percent for Buttigieg, 3.0 percent for O’Rourke, and 1.7 percent for Booker, and 1.5 percent for Yang.

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To be clear, static polls are not the problem. They’re a symptom of a larger problem: These debates are a poor method for sizing up potential nominees. Many voters apparently agree, as ratings for last week’s debates paled in comparison to June’s successful launch.

One concern is the number of candidates sharing the stage. In at least the past 60 years, Democratic presidential debates have never featured more than nine people. Countless studies have shown that too many choices lead to decision paralysis and/or frustration. How can voters thoughtfully assess 10 interlocking performances—and then do it again the following night with 10 new options?

Another concern is the glaring participation disparity. In the June 26 debate, the four highest-polling candidates (Biden, Harris, Sanders and Buttigieg) spoke the most, each exceeding 10 minutes, while lesser-known candidates like Marianne WilliamsonMarianne WilliamsonWilliamson unveils plan to create Cabinet-level Department of Peace Marianne Williamson says she will remove Oval Office portrait of Andrew Jackson if elected Biden, Buttigieg bypassing Democratic delegate meeting: report MORE and Rep. Eric SwalwellEric Michael SwalwellHickenlooper ends presidential bid Scenes from Iowa State Fair: Surging Warren, Harris draw big crowds Nadler hits gas on impeachment MORE (D-Calif.) talked for less than five minutes, and Yang spoke for less than three minutes. Huge disparities continued the following evening. The trend continued last Tuesday and Wednesday; frontrunners generally spoke twice as often as candidates who are barely hanging on.

If the Democratic Party wants debates to showcase leadership abilities, varied viewpoints and unique personalities, it has largely failed.

A few changes would improve presidential primary debates. First, the survey-related requirements (earning 1 percent support in three polls) are not an effective means for inviting candidates to the stage, particularly when margins of error consistently exceed 3 percent. All-or-nothing polls this early in the campaign season are driven more by name recognition than merit.

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Instead, the party should include candidates based on whom voters are ”considering voting for.” Such surveys more accurately represent breadth of support. For example, a Biden supporter might want to hear more from Sen. Amy KlobucharAmy Jean KlobucharCastro qualifies for next Democratic primary debates Eight Democratic presidential hopefuls to appear in CNN climate town hall Biden, Buttigieg bypassing Democratic delegate meeting: report MORE (D-Minn.). Klobuchar has 9 percent support in the latest Economist / YouGov poll that factors that respondents are “considering.” That speaks volumes more about her potential popularity than her mere 1 percent designation in all-or-nothing polling.

Second, rather than host four 10-person debates at about two-and-a-half hours a pop, the party should have separated qualifying candidates into five groups of four. Each group would have consisted of a top-tier candidate (e.g. Harris), a second-tier candidate (e.g. Booker), a third-tier candidate (e.g. Washington Governor Jay InsleeJay Robert InsleeCastro, Steyer join pledge opposing the Keystone XL pipeline Eight Democratic presidential hopefuls to appear in CNN climate town hall Andrew Yang promises mass pardon to those imprisoned for nonviolent marijuana offenses MORE), and a fourth-tier candidate (e.g. former Colorado Governor John HickenlooperJohn Wright HickenlooperPoll: Trump trails three Democrats by 10 points in Colorado The Hill's Campaign Report: Battle for Senate begins to take shape The Hill's Morning Report — Trump and the new Israel-'squad' controversy MORE). These early debates should have been vehicles for lesser-known candidates — many of them owning impressive résumés — to prove they merit more attention and funding. Audiences could have more easily evaluated their abilities alongside only three competitors.

Had they implemented these changes, the party could have organized 10 one-hour debates: five four-person debates the first two nights, and then five four-person debates a month later. As a result, each candidate would have earned around 12-14 minutes per debate, as moderators would have found it easier to grant each participant roughly the same amount of speaking time.

Just like the GOP four years ago, the Democratic Party was not entirely prepared for this year’s unprecedented influx of presidential candidates. If its goal was to foster an early primary season that demonstrably rewarded the “haves” over the “have-nots,” it has succeeded.

That’s counterproductive for a party whose last three presidents (Jimmy CarterJimmy Carter3 real problems Republicans need to address to win in 2020 Trump spends big in Texas, raising questions about whether he's worried Here's how senators can overcome their hyperpartisanship with judicial nominees MORE, Bill ClintonWilliam (Bill) Jefferson ClintonBen Shapiro: No prominent GOP figure ever questioned Obama's legitimacy The Hill's 12:30 Report: Trump tries to reassure voters on economy 3 real problems Republicans need to address to win in 2020 MORE, and Barack ObamaBarack Hussein ObamaBen Shapiro: No prominent GOP figure ever questioned Obama's legitimacy 3 real problems Republicans need to address to win in 2020 Obama's high school basketball jersey sells for 0,000 at auction MORE) entered their first primaries as significant underdogs. Put any of them on stage against three competitors, and they would have had room to shine.

But put them on stage with nine competitors. Well, it’s easy to see why this year’s debate structure has been a lost opportunity for Democrats. As the largely unchanging polls show, this year’s underdogs never really had a chance.

B.J. Rudell is associate director of POLIS: Duke University’s Center for Political Leadership, Innovation and Service. In a career encompassing stints on Capitol Hill, on a presidential campaign, in a newsroom, in classrooms, and for a consulting firm, he has authored three books and has shared political insights across all media platforms, including for CNN and Fox News.