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 BidenGabbard moves to New Hampshire ahead of primary Biden hammers Trump over video of world leaders mocking him Trump's legal team huddles with Senate Republicans MORE led Sens. Bernie SandersBernie SandersGabbard moves to New Hampshire ahead of primary Sanders to join youth climate strikers in Iowa Saagar Enjeti unpacks why Kamala Harris's campaign didn't work MORE (I-Vt.) and Elizabeth WarrenElizabeth Ann WarrenGabbard moves to New Hampshire ahead of primary LGBTQ advocates slam Buttigieg for past history with Salvation Army Saagar Enjeti unpacks why Kamala Harris's campaign didn't work 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 HarrisHarris posts video asking baby if she'll run for president one day Krystal Ball: What Harris's exit means for the other 2020 candidates Saagar Enjeti unpacks why Kamala Harris's campaign didn't work MORE (D-Calif.) (7.0 percent) and South Bend Indiana Mayor Pete ButtigiegPeter (Pete) Paul ButtigiegGabbard moves to New Hampshire ahead of primary LGBTQ advocates slam Buttigieg for past history with Salvation Army Poll: 2020 general election remains wide open MORE (6.6 percent). Former Rep. Beto O’Rourke (D-Texas), Sen. Cory BookerCory Anthony BookerLGBTQ advocates slam Buttigieg for past history with Salvation Army Harris posts video asking baby if she'll run for president one day Krystal Ball: What Harris's exit means for the other 2020 candidates MORE (D-N.J.), and Andrew YangAndrew YangHarris posts video asking baby if she'll run for president one day Krystal Ball: What Harris's exit means for the other 2020 candidates The Hill's 12:30 Report: Impeachment fight shifts to House Judiciary 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 WilliamsonDemocrats take in lobbying industry cash despite pledges Chicago suburb to use recreational marijuana sales tax to fund reparations program: report The Hill's 12:30 Report — Presented by Johnson & Johnson — Witness dismisses 'fictional' GOP claims of Ukraine meddling MORE and Rep. Eric SwalwellEric Michael SwalwellDemocrats debate scope of impeachment charges Live coverage: Witnesses say Trump committed impeachable offenses Pelosi faces tough choices on impeachment managers 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 KlobucharKrystal Ball: What Harris's exit means for the other 2020 candidates Teamsters to host presidential forum with six 2020 Democrats Democrats hit gas on impeachment 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 InsleeKrystal Ball: What Harris's exit means for the other 2020 candidates Bullock drops White House bid, won't run for Senate O'Rourke ends presidential bid MORE), and a fourth-tier candidate (e.g. former Colorado Governor John HickenlooperJohn HickenlooperThe Hill's 12:30 Report: Impeachment enters new crucial phase Bullock drops White House bid, won't run for Senate 2020 hopes rise for gun control groups after Virginia elections 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 CarterJimmy Carter released from hospital Booker notes 'anger' over more billionaires than black candidates in 2020 race New Hampshire parochialism, not whiteness, bedevils Democrats MORE, Bill ClintonWilliam (Bill) Jefferson ClintonClinton still 'disappointed' Sanders held off on endorsing her in 2016 Booker notes 'anger' over more billionaires than black candidates in 2020 race Fox's Napolitano says obstruction 'easiest' impeachment offense for Democrats MORE, and Barack ObamaBarack Hussein ObamaLGBTQ advocates slam Buttigieg for past history with Salvation Army Jayapal pushes back on Gaetz's questioning of impeachment witness donations to Democrats Gaetz clashes with Stanford professor: 'It makes you look mean' 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.