Wasserman Schultz added that six debates was just the right amount for voters to see a lot of interaction between the candidates without constraining their campaign schedules. “The purpose of it is so we can make sure that the Democratic Party’s debate process doesn’t get out of control,” she said, dismissing charges that the schedule is designed to rig the process for Hillary Clinton by limiting exposure of challengers Bernie Sanders and Martin O’Malley.
Yet the arguments against Wasserman Schultz continue to gain traction. If there is a good counter-argument to the case being made by those who want more debates, I haven’t heard it yet.
One key argument for more debates making the rounds among Dems is that the current schedule may result in too few Dem primary voters tuning in, at exactly the moment when it would be most useful for Democrats to be drawing a sharp contrast with Republicans. Four of the six Dem debates are currently scheduled, for October 13, November 14, December 19, and January 17th (two more are set for February or March but are not scheduled yet).
“Three of the four scheduled debates are on weekends,” Deb Kozikowski, the northeast vice president of the Association of State Democratic Chairs, tells me. “One is the weekend between Hannukah and Christmas; the other falls on Martin Luther King Day weekend. You can’t expect that we’re going to generate a whole lot of excitement and interest in these candidates.”
The Hillary campaign has said it hopes to wrap up the nomination by March 1st or March 15th, by which date many of the states, including big ones, will have voted. If that does happen, the whole primary schedule will have been very front-loaded and compressed early in the season. By contrast, in 2008, the Democratic primary went on for many, many months, into June — giving the candidates far more exposure to not just Democratic primary voters, but to the American people more broadly. More debates might help offset that, as Dem strategist Simon Rosenberg has pointed out in his suggestion of fixes.
What’s more, between the start of the new year, when voters start tuning in, and March 15th, the Republican primary season may well hit maximum carnival mode — particularly since it’s now looking like Donald Trump will be with us for the foreseeable future. Some Dems think that this is exactly the moment when the Democratic candidates should be on the air as much as possible, engaging in a sober discussion of issues that contrasts well with Trump-palooza.
Depending on when those last two unscheduled Dem debates are set (if, for instance, they are set after March 15th), there could conceivably be only one Dem debate between January and the end of the primary. The maximum would be three. Republicans have at least five — and those will likely get huge audiences.
“My concern is that not enough people will see the Democrats, while on the other side of the aisle, they’re putting on the Greatest Show on Earth,” Kozikowski of the Association of State Democratic Chairs tells me. “That just wipes us off the map. It doesn’t make any sense to let the opposition own the airwaves. The majority of my colleagues don’t feel much differently. We are advocating a full and complete discussion of issues among our candidates, whom we believe are far superior to the Greatest Show on Earth.”
By limiting Democratic debates to just six, more people will feel excluded from our political process, rather than included. As Democrats, we believe the more people are engaged in the process and the exchange of ideas, the better off we are as a nation.
Meanwhile, Clinton, the likely Democratic nominee, has proposed far-reaching voting reforms and a new scheme of federal matching funds for small contributions. Both of those are designed to maximize participation in the process — a goal Clinton has leaned into with moral urgency. Against that backdrop, it seems infelicitous for Democrats to be embroiled in a very public fight in which party leaders are increasingly being accused of limiting the exposure of the candidates to voters.