The Debates Are Too Big

If you’ve been following the Democratic presidential debates, you have seen many different faces on the stage. In the first debate in June, twenty candidates made their cases to voters. This made sense, since it was so early in the primary process and they needed the opportunity to get their messages out to the public. But now, months later and with voters heading to the primary or caucus polls in less than 100 days in some states, there are still far too many candidates qualifying for the debates. At a crucial stage in the campaign, when voters should be given the chance to distinguish between the front-runners and the other presidential hopefuls, we still see candidates with no path to victory taking up valuable speaking time.

Currently, there are three main groups of Democratic candidates. First, there are the main front-runners, I would say those polling above fifteen percent: former Vice President Joe Biden, Senator Elizabeth Warren, and Senator Bernie Sanders. Then, three candidates who may have a path to victory, but only a slim one. In this category are Senator Kamala Harris, Mayor Pete Buttigieg, and Andrew Yang. The third group, who may as well drop out now and save their reputations and money, includes candidates such as Congresswoman Tulsi Gabbard, Senator Amy Klobuchar, Tom Steyer, former Housing and Urban Development Secretary Julian Castro, Senator Cory Booker, and Senator Michael Bennet.

While I respect the struggling candidates’ right to continue their campaigns and hold on to a last glimmer of hope, the Democratic National Committee should absolutely put an end to these crowded debate stages. Twelve candidates took part in the October debates, all on one stage, and it was an absolute mess. Klobuchar, polling at 1 to 2 percent in most polls, was third in speaking time, speaking for a total of thirteen minutes and eighteen seconds. She was given more time than Sanders, Buttigieg, or Harris. Similarly, Beto O’Rourke spoke for thirteen minutes and nine seconds, coming in fourth in speaking time, time which should have been allowed to front-runners who are not on the edge of dropping out (as O’Rourke now has). These candidates cannot crack the top five in a single state’s polling, but the debate moderators ask them questions as if they were front-runners. They have been campaigning for almost a year now, and their messages still have not swayed voters in their favor. Yet for some reason, the DNC allows these candidates to claim speaking time, which clogs up the debates and prevents the meaningful discussion that the vast majority of voters care about. While I appreciate the fact that the DNC has raised the threshold requirements for the December debate, the November debate will still include Klobuchar and billionaire Steyer, who is able to make the stage only because he spent $47 million of his own money in early states to meet the requirements.

The debates could easily offer great insight into the differences between candidates. For example, a long discussion of the different health care plans offered by the Biden, Warren, and Sanders campaigns would be very valuable. Given that health care is the “top issue” for 36 percent of American voters, you would think the DNC would consider it necessary to allow these candidates to go into detail about their health care proposals, rather than forcing them to make quick statements in 60 seconds or less. With the one opportunity, the debates, that the Democrats have to showcase their front-runners together, it would make sense to get them to prove that their proposals are the best for the future of America. Instead, we are forced to sift through sets of thirteen minutes in which desperate, long-shot candidates say whatever must be said in order to pick up traction.

If these struggling candidates offered new ideas and proposals that could spark a conversation and move the direction of the party, I believe I would be more receptive to their continued participation in the debates. But aside from O’Rourke’s mandatory gun buyback proposal, I’ve yet to notice anything that is unique from the 0-to-2 percent candidates. They simply regurgitate the same talking points that we’ve heard for months, and go for “kill shot” segments in a desperate attempt to draw attention and raise their numbers in the polls. This does nothing productive for the party in terms of finding the right candidate to challenge President Trump, and simply takes time from what could be valuable discussions. 

The DNC needs to wake up and allow America to see a true discussion between the front-runners in this field. Rather than forcing us to watch a dozen candidates trying to make their cases, it should offer Americans what they deserve: a real debate of ideas between the ones who actually have a shot at facing Trump. With some of the states voting so soon, it is increasingly crucial to allow the main candidates to differentiate their campaigns from the others. If we reduce the number of voices on stage and give the front-runners a fair amount of time to explain their stances and proposals, it will give voters a much clearer picture as they decide who should be the Democratic nominee in 2020.