The first chapter of the Democratic race for president has been defined by its steadiness. A handful of scandals once billed as potentially devastating—shoulder touching! Tupac! Standing on tables!—revealed themselves as little more than Twitter ephemera. The two most famous candidates, Joe Biden and Bernie Sanders, unsurprisingly remain atop most of the polls. The two candidates who have managed to climb up the ladder, Elizabeth Warren and Pete Buttigieg, have done so by defining a clear rationale for running and pounding their message daily, with a relentless media and travel schedule. The race, though, has remained mostly static, helmed by a pair of durable white-haired front-runners, a platoon of credible second-tier candidates, and a roster of one-percenters who look like they wandered off the set of Frasier.
The most common refrain about this phase in the campaign, from the candidates, campaign flacks, and pundits, is this: “It’s early.” That continues to ring true. A Quinnipiac poll this week showed that 45% of Democrats are paying “a lot” of attention to the campaign. The rest are following the race somewhat, a little bit, or not at all—and even those answers came from the self-selecting type of person who willfully chose to pick up a random call and engage with a stranger over the phone about politics. If you are not that type of person, I would like to hang out with you at a barbecue this summer. Even the two candidates who have managed to wrestle free so far—Warren and Buttigieg—have mostly done so on the backs of college-educated white liberals, the type of voter who would spend their free time following the minutiae of the primary race. Many more primary voters have not yet picked a horse.
Yes, it’s early. But there’s another article of faith inside the campaigns and network greenrooms: that the first primary debates will shake up the race, ushering in a kinetic new phase of candidate-on-candidate warfare, finally bringing some drama and conflict to a race that’s mostly lacked the kind of fireworks the media craves. The debates, hosted by NBC News in Miami over two nights later this month, will feature a randomized draw of 10 candidates on each debate stage. Each debate will last two hours, moderated by a diverse roster of big-name NBC anchors. Campaigns and TV executives are all betting on big ratings. After all, the first Republican primary debate of the 2016 cycle, held in Cleveland and hosted by Fox News, was a ratings behemoth, placing Donald Trump at the center of the debate stage and drawing roughly 24 million viewers. The first Democratic debate between Hillary Clinton, Bernie Sanders, and Martin O’Malley was less of a magnet but a draw nonetheless: some 15 million viewers watched CNN that night. Among the campaign managers I’ve spoken with in recent days, the betting line is that 15-20 million viewers will tune in on June 26. “I do think the debates will be well watched among activists and primary voters,” said David Axelrod, the former Obama adviser who is not working for any candidate this cycle. “The crowd has grown so big that there is only so much oxygen in the tank. If you are not on the radar screen going into the debates, or coming out of them, you may be out of this thing.”
What separates this debate cycle from past ones, thanks to the sheer number of the candidates, is the DNC’s lottery-style decision to sprinkle the candidates across two stages on two different nights. It’s a worthy improvement from the Republican debates of 2015, which placed power in the hands of ratings-hungry TV producers who decided to shove the lower-tier candidates table into a series of jayvee debates that aired before prime time. This year the DNC responded admirably to complaints from 2015, when party officials put their thumbs on the debate scale in favor of Hillary Clinton, as leaked emails later revealed. This cycle everyone with a Nordstrom suit gets at least one bite at the national-television apple. But due to the last-minute nature of the debate draw on Friday, candidates will have less than two weeks to prepare for a debate that might only allow 6 to 10 minutes of speaking time per person. The stakes are even higher for lesser-known candidates hoping to make a good first impression. “It’s the first chance to introduce yourself to people who haven’t seen you before,” said a senior official on one Democratic campaign. “It’s a captive audience of people who want to learn more about you. And those people have not heard your stories, your vision, or your message. You have to try to get it across in what little time you have.”
David Kochel, who advised Mitt Romney’s two presidential campaigns and Jeb Bush’s campaign in 2016, said it’s difficult to stand out on a crowded debate stage unless you have a good story to tell. “Whoever can tell the best, most compelling story in the three minutes they have will be the one who helps themselves the most,” Kochel told me. “Issue laundry lists are useless. Most of these candidates support the same things, with a few distinctions. Biography is fine, but I think a story—from the trail, from their experience, from their public service—that puts their candidacy in context is the best approach. Canned lines from consultants, sharp attacks on other candidates, or even a clever attack on Trump will get lost in the shuffle, I think.” Put another way, the candidates who have a firm grasp on why they are running for president will find a way to stand out. The ones who try to swing for the fences to create a moment might end up hitting themselves in the face.
What’s more, the dynamics of each debate—and perhaps the trajectory of the campaign moving forward—fully depend on the cocktail of personalities assigned to each stage. It’s possible that a woman or a person of color stands alone on a dais flanked by white men, offering that lucky Democrat a chance to stand out. What if Kirsten Gillibrand, desperate for relevance, nabs a spot next to Biden: Will she savage him for his recent flip-flop on the Hyde Amendment? What if Cory Booker, a mesmerizing speaker on some days and a cloying one on others, shows up and hits a home run? Another scenario: Sanders and Warren, colliding in the polls, share a stage, giving NBC moderators the chance to play them against each other and accelerating their coming clash for the progressive left. Jabs will be exchanged! Barbs will be traded! Content will be created and distributed across platforms!
Then again, the two populists might be separated across two nights. And maybe, thanks to some summer glitch in the Matrix, the ratings for the Wednesday debate are huge, but the ratings for Thursday are just blah. What if a breaking-news event overshadows one or both of the debates, blowing up the questions being prepared by Lester Holt and company? What if the news cycle for the first debate is quickly drowned out by the second? Heading into Miami, more has been left to chance than in any debate in modern memory. “For two thirds of the candidates, the 10 minutes they get on the stage has enormous consequences, because they need a breakthrough,” Axelrod told me. “The worst thing for some of these guys coming out of the debate is if they aren’t in the story the next day. Two things are determinative right now: how you do in these big public debates, and then, can you raise the money to sustain yourself? If the debates come and go and you haven’t made a ripple, and you haven’t raised enough money, you’re going to have a confrontation with reality.”
Appearing next to Biden might present the thorniest challenge. The primary race so far has unfolded less like the anticipated showdown between the radical left and the moderate middle, but instead as a fight between Biden and everyone else. Most of the field is running on some idea of change—generational, racial, ideological. Biden, meanwhile, embodies stability, a return to normalcy after the turmoil of the Trump moment. His supporters are older and seem to care little for policy details or the identity fights on the left, only that Biden represents a safe and stable option, like your favorite comfy old sweater. The rest of the Democrats want you to try on those new fitted jeans at Uniqlo. How do Biden’s rivals undercut him as the most stable choice without looking petulant? Do they even try? It would be a risky gambit considering Biden, well liked by so many Democrats, has the highest net favorability ratings of any candidate in the field. Former Marco Rubio strategist Todd Harris explained the dilemma of going negative to the New York Times last week: “You expose voters to negative information about an opponent, but the problem is that voters also tend to punish the attacker.” Does any Democrat want to get punished this early in the race? Typically candidates wait to sharpen their knives until later in the race, as the primaries near. In a 2007 debate, when Hillary Clinton flip-flopped in real time on the subject of driver’s licenses for undocumented immigrants, her opponents pounced, delivering what turned out to be the first of many mortal wounds on her way to losing the primary to Barack Obama. That debate did not take place until October 30.
What campaign obsessives are not discussing is another entirely possible outcome: that the first debates won’t change very much at all. It might be true that tens of millions of Americans will excitedly tune in to watch a bunch of random politicians for two hours on back-to-back nights during summertime. It’s possible too that some Democrats will murder-suicide each other in heated attempts to grab attention, shaking up the race. But because of the limited speaking time, and the need for each candidate to make a positive first impression, viewers could be in for two nights of kid gloves and hokey stories that deliver nothing but fodder for a Saturday Night Live cold open. “With 10 people on a stage, there is not a lot of time really to say anything,” said the senior Democratic campaign official. “It’s going to incentivize one-liners, or a certain kind of communication that some are going to be good at delivering and some aren’t. But what can you say in 60 seconds on any issue? A thesis statement and a couple sentences, then you’re going to get cut off.” Speaking time for some candidates will also shrink as others ramble over their time, or as Democrats try to interject and pick their own fights, drowning out screen time for the ones who don’t speak up.
The rules outlined by the DNC have, predictably, fostered gripes inside almost every Democratic campaign. But they’ve also pleasantly tested our assumptions about political power. Should sitting U.S. senators or governors be allowed to debate when they can barely marshal support from just 65,000 donors, a number smaller than the capacity of many SEC football stadiums? Should a random goon get onstage just because they thirst for a cable contract once they eventually lose? Or can anyone with a microphone and an email list make a credible case for the presidency? Donald Trump did. The qualifying process alone has exposed who has the gas in the tank for a presidential run and who doesn’t.
But the debates will also test something else: 16 months before Election Day, are Americans as ready for this presidential campaign as insiders are? That’s the running assumption in the press. Democratic enthusiasm and anti-Trump fervor fueled record turnout during the midterm elections, and even the no-name candidates are drawing substantial crowds in the primary states. The campaign is already saturating cable news and Twitter. But are the people who aren’t professional activists and insiders ready to dig in? They might not be. The Quinnipiac poll this week found that attention being paid to the campaign has actually declined since April, when 49 percent of respondents said they were paying “a lot” of attention to the race. That number fell to 44 percent in May, and 42 percent this week. That number might suggest some political fatigue, and it’s not even July.
Campaigns are basing their viewership assumptions, in part, on TV ratings from 2015. But the first Republican debate, which landed 24 million viewers, starred a shameless reality-show star known for his racist and sexist brain farts. There is no such figure in the Democratic race. At the same time, the first Democratic debate, with 15 million viewers, didn’t take place until October 2015, many months into the already-raging battle between Clinton and Sanders. A forgotten statistic is that the first debate of 2011, when Republicans were dueling for the right to take on President Obama, generated only about 3 million viewers for Fox News—a number that held mostly steady throughout that primary race. This year all three cable networks have invested heavily in their own presidential town halls. Some of them have popped, drawing above-average numbers for cable. Most, though, have fizzled as fast as our modern attention spans.
Democrats and viewers hoping for a burst of campaign adrenaline might be in for a disappointment. There could be a breakout figure or a moment that can be recycled for fund-raising pleas, but news cycles today move at light speed, and presidential campaigns are about more than debates. In the age of the internet, many candidates are able to build connections with their supporters with or without big televised moments or major conflict. Iowa Democratic Party chairman Troy Price, who hosted nearly every candidate at a forum in Cedar Rapids last weekend, said the event was notable for its lack of fireworks. “I think people were expecting it to be a battle royal or something,” Price said. “People weren’t interested in rancor or fighting. They were just trying to speak to their people and get new people on board. Right now it’s the activists who are showing up all the time, the people like us who love politics.”
Debates, he said, are always important for candidates. But Price cautioned that most Democratic voters are only beginning to scrutinize their choices. As temperatures climb, he said, campaigns have to prove their mettle far from the debate stage. “Once campaigns start doing voter outreach, door knocking, building paid operations, and doing paid communication, that’s when we will see the numbers start to change. By the end of the summer, over the next three months, we will have a sense of how everything is playing in terms of their operations and messages. Once we turn the corner, after Labor Day, then things ramp up around here. That’s when the activity is fast and furious.”
In other words, it’s early. Still.
Peter Hamby is the host of Snapchat’s Good Luck America.
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