Why the debates no longer matter

Why the debates no longer matter
© Getty Images

What has become clear in the Democratic primary is that the debates are not moving the needle. They are a political commodity with little ability to excite voters. What the debates have proven is that they do damage and do not provide a sustainable boost for candidates. Blame the marathon coverage of the impeachment hearings or the lack of pizzaz across the field, but interest in the debates is dwindling fast. Even political junkies like myself found themselves wondering if skipping the fifth debate was actually an option, but I decided to tune in. Here are my top takeaways.

First, the Democrats on the stage in Atlanta proved that while the field of candidates is large, it certainly has depth. Every faction was represented, and the candidates made the case for why they can put the country back on the right path. I can confidently say that the future of the Democratic Party is bright and well positioned for crucial growth in the long term. While only one candidate can win the presidency, candidates like Cory Booker are poised to play a major role in a Democratic administration.

Second, the future is female. The moderators did fantastic in what can be an unforgiving role. When moderators fail to push back, they are usually viewed as illegitimate. But when they push back too hard, they risk being seen as a partisan hack. The moderators did a great job of engaging in substantive discussions, while avoiding a reality television atmosphere. Watching four women handle a presidential debate was very powerful.

ADVERTISEMENT

But the moderators were not the only impressive women on stage. Kamala Harris and Amy Klobuchar took advantage of their time. Harris threw Tulsi Gabbard totally off her game in a shot of adrenaline that her campaign desperately needs. Klobuchar smacked down Joe Biden in a noteworthy quote. Her use of House Speaker Nancy Pelosi as a weapon against the president is also sure to be the most viral moment of the fifth debate.

Finally, Democrats want to win next year. Unless you have been living under a rock, you understand that more than anything else in politics today. The painful loss in 2016 is precisely what wakes Democrats up in the morning and what keeps them awake at night. However, if Democrats intend to kick Donald Trump out of the White House in 2020, they know the general election cannot be a close race. For the sake of the country, and for our sanity, Democrats need an overwhelming victory next year.

As we move closer to the Iowa caucuses, the more that reality has taken root. Voters may be smitten with whomever is the new flavor of the week but, come Election Day, the most important question that many weary Americans across the nation will ask themselves is, “Who can be Trump?” For candidates like Joe Biden, that may prove to be a saving grace. For candidates like Elizabeth Warren, it may be the toughest hurdle to clear.

Democrats are finally starting to understand the importance of winning. Moral victories may be nice, but appointing Supreme Court justices is better. That means continuing to appeal to a broad electorate instead of engaging in constant crossfire. Primary voters have not shown an appetite for petty attacks or negative messages. Candidates would be wise to tell their story without diminishing the contributions of the other campaigns.

The fifth debate is officially in the books as a chapter that most voters will gloss over. In a week, no one will remember it. The real work is being done on the ground. As we look ahead to Iowa, this primary race is wide open.

Michael Starr Hopkins is the founding partner of Northern Starr Strategies. He served on the Democratic presidential campaigns for Barack Obama, Hillary Clinton, and John Delaney. Follow him on Twitter @TheOnlyHonest.