Let’s just run down how this is all going to work, because that’s important to understanding the problem. What it all comes down to is that there are just too many candidates — which makes the debates more important than ever, yet less likely than ever to actually help primary voters figure out for whom they should vote.
Even without the 24 candidates now running, the parties always have to come up with some standard they can use to decide who gets to participate in debates. After all, there are always genuine cranks who run, and if you allowed all of them to get in front of the TV cameras, it would be a clown show. The problem is that when you hit two dozen, even some serious candidates may not make the cut.
The standard that the Democratic Party set this time — either 65,000 contributions or receiving at least 1 percent in three approved national polls — would have been easy for any significant political figure to reach in a different year, but with so many people running this time, it isn’t. Which is why, for instance, Gov. Steve Bullock of Montana, who only recently entered the race, is complaining that the rules have been rigged against candidates such as him.
The candidates who haven’t qualified so far are Bullock, Miramar, Fla., Mayor Wayne Messam, former Alaska senator Mike Gravel, and Rep. Seth Moulton (Mass.). If any of them qualify by Wednesday, there will be a set of tiebreakers to determine which candidates make it, given that the party has set the maximum number of debate participants at 20.
To avoid the type of “undercard” debates that the Republicans held in 2016, in which trailing candidates were relegated to secondary debates that no one watched, the Democratic National Committee decided to randomly assign leading and trailing candidates to the two debates, which will have 10 participants each. (A fuller explanation can be found here.) After the first round of summer debates, the criteria for participation in the debates that follow will become more stringent.
So why do I say these debates will be awful? Two reasons: Time and desperation.
Let’s start with time. The debates are scheduled to be two hours long. Out of that, let’s assume 30 minutes are taken up by introductions, commercial breaks and the time required for questions to be asked. Which would leave 90 minutes to be spread among 10 candidates, or nine minutes per candidate. A certain amount of that is going to involve answering the inane questions that the moderators inevitably pose: What’s your favorite Bible verse? Why aren’t you higher in the polls? Can you say something nice about one of your opponents? So they’re left with maybe six or seven minutes to actually make a case for themselves.
Which is just impossible. The candidates might have a chance to say a few worthwhile things, but it certainly won’t be enough to actually make a persuasive argument for why he or she should be the most powerful person on earth.
And that creates the second problem: Desperation. Former vice president Joe Biden or Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) might not feel like the fate of their candidacies rests on that six or seven minutes, but someone such as Gillibrand or Rep. Tim Ryan (Ohio) could, because they are far behind in the polls and need to do something to change that. They will be under pressure to come up with some kind of zinger that makes such a clip of them stand out.
The debates will represent the largest audience to which the candidates, so far, have had access, which ramps up the pressure even further to not waste the opportunity. This means more zingers, which are the enemy of genuine deliberation.
What’s more, the candidates know that, given the way the debates are structured, they can create a self-fulfilling prophecy. If you haven’t already built a following, you can’t get into the debates, and if you don’t get into the debates, you’ll have a lot of trouble building a following. If you fail to stand out in the summer debates, you could stagnate, making it more difficult to meet the criteria for early fall’s round of debates (130,000 donations, or 2 percent in polls).
The kind of culling that will result is what the party wants, but what the candidates — at least the trailing ones — fear. The party would like to see candidates steadily drop out, so the choices narrow. If you’re at 1 percent in the polls now, you know that you’ll need something dramatic to move into that top tier and have a real shot at the nomination.
So when the cameras are on you, you have to find a way to stand out. And reasoned, careful argumentation is probably not going to be it.