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 BidenFive examples of media's sycophancy for Biden on inauguration week Drastic measures for drastic times — caregiver need mobile health apps Boycott sham impeachment MORE led Sens. Bernie SandersBernie SandersBoycott sham impeachment Sunday shows - Biden agenda, Trump impeachment trial dominate Sanders: Senate may use budget reconciliation to pass Biden agenda MORE (I-Vt.) and Elizabeth WarrenElizabeth WarrenCancel culture comes for the moderates Biden expands on Obama ethics pledge Student loan forgiveness would be windfall for dentists, doctors and lawyers 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 HarrisBiden talks NATO, climate change in first presidential call with France's Macron Biden must wait weekend for State Department pick Senators introduce bill to award Officer Goodman the Congressional Gold Medal MORE (D-Calif.) (7.0 percent) and South Bend Indiana Mayor Pete ButtigiegPete ButtigiegThe Hill's Morning Report - Biden's crisis agenda hits headwinds Biden signs order to require masks on planes and public transportation Senators vet Buttigieg to run Transportation Department MORE (6.6 percent). Former Rep. Beto O’Rourke (D-Texas), Sen. Cory BookerCory BookerDemocrats seek answers on impact of Russian cyberattack on Justice Department, Courts Senate confirms Biden's intel chief, giving him first Cabinet official Booker brings girlfriend, actress Rosario Dawson, to inauguration MORE (D-N.J.), and Andrew YangAndrew YangYang to quarantine after campaign staffer tests positive for COVID-19 Andrew Yang sparks Twitter uproar with pro-bodega video Yang announces run for New York City mayor 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.


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 WilliamsonMarianne Williamson discusses America's "soulless ethos" Marianne Williamson discusses speaking at People's Party Convention Fewer people watched opening night of Democratic convention compared to 2016 MORE and Rep. Eric SwalwellEric Michael SwalwellSwalwell compares Trump to bin Laden: They 'inspired and radicalized' Pelosi names 9 impeachment managers House Judiciary Democrats ask Pence to invoke 25th Amendment to remove Trump 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.


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 KlobucharSenators spar over validity of Trump impeachment trial Sunday shows - Biden agenda, Trump impeachment trial dominate Klobuchar says Senate impeachment trial of former official is constitutional: 'We have precedent' 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 InsleeBiden leans on Obama-era appointees on climate Thousands of troops dig in for inauguration OVERNIGHT ENERGY: Nine, including former Michigan governor, charged over Flint water crisis | Regulator finalizes rule forcing banks to serve oil, gun companies | Trump admin adds hurdle to increase efficiency standards for furnaces, water heaters MORE), and a fourth-tier candidate (e.g. former Colorado Governor John HickenlooperJohn HickenlooperBipartisan Senate gang to talk with Biden aide on coronavirus relief K Street navigates virtual inauguration week Senate swears-in six new lawmakers as 117th Congress convenes 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 CarterWhy Joe Biden should pardon Donald Trump Trump's pardons harshly criticized by legal experts Senate confirms Biden's intel chief, giving him first Cabinet official MORE, Bill ClintonWilliam (Bill) Jefferson ClintonMcConnell proposes postponing impeachment trial until February The Hill's Morning Report - Biden takes office, calls for end to 'uncivil war' The Memo: Biden strives for common ground after Trump turmoil MORE, and Barack ObamaBarack Hussein ObamaNASA demonstrates why rocket science is still hard with the SLS test Joe Biden might bring 'unity' – to the Middle East Extremism in the U.S. military 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.