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Opinion Here’s the problem with the Democratic debates

Ten of the Democratic presidential candidates during their debate in Detroit on July 30. (Anthony Lanzilote/Bloomberg News)
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The Democratic debates haven’t done what they are surely intended to do. They have not allowed lesser-known candidates to break through, swayed voters or put any of the candidates in their best light. Not surprisingly, given that the debates are run by media outlets and put on for ratings, they’ve created conflict but no lasting impact on the race.

The latest IBD/TIPP poll finds: “The former vice president leads the Democratic field with 30% support. [Joe] Biden is followed by Elizabeth Warren at 17%, Bernie Sanders at 15% and Kamala Harris at 11%.” Likewise, the latest Morning Consult poll has the race roughly back to where it was before the debates: Biden at 33 percent, Sanders at 19 percent, Warren at 15 percent and Harris at 9 percent. Candidates lauded for strong debate performances — such as Sen. Cory Booker (D-N.J.) — remain mired in the low single digits.

Nor have the debates really affected how the Democrats stack up against President Trump. The IBD/TIPP poll finds: “Each of those candidates had an edge over Trump, but only Biden garnered an outright majority. Biden led Trump by a comfortable 54%-41% among registered voters. Among independents, Biden led Trump 59%-35%." That has also remained mostly unchanged since Biden entered the race.

The debates surely don’t clarify the candidates’ stances on major issues — does anyone think, for example, that voters understand the differences between Sanders’s and Harris’s health-care plans? Nor do they provide a forum conducive for candidates’ displays of leadership and rhetorical skills. The format creates disjointed, chaotic events and encourages the moderators to pit candidates against one another on policies they haven’t even explained, leaving many voters befuddled.

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In fact, all the candidates seem better when not forced into the debate format that puts a premium on attacks and sound bites. The debates roil the coverage for a week or so but, soon enough, the race reverts to the mean. Morning Consult, in the wake of the second debate, found: “Along with losing 3 points in vote share, Harris’s net favorability dropped by 11 points (seven points more than any other candidate)." Yet since the second debate, Harris has knocked it out of the park in a series of TV appearances, showing passion, exuding moral heft and skewering the president on his embrace of white nationalism and his refusal to take action on gun safety.

And frankly, the wrong people have gotten on the stage, in part because the DNC allowed candidates to gain entry by accumulating donors, giving an advantage to candidates with gobs of money (former Maryland congressman John Delaney, for example) to drum up donations. It is also a system ripe for manipulation. Rep. Tulsi Gabbard (D-Hawaii), an infamous apologist for Syrian leader Bashar al-Assad, may have gotten a boost from neo-Nazis who bragged that they’ve helped her qualify for the debates by donating to her campaign. Using donors as a criteria also favored current officeholders who had access to their existing donor lists to help qualify for the debates.

Voters don’t even like using donor numbers to set the debate stage. Business Insider’s poll found, “When making their own judgments of who should participate in primary debates, Democratic primary voters place much more weight on a candidate’s national and early primary state polling performance than fundraising. Indeed, only one-fifth of voters wanted to factor in the donor count when it came to the debate stage placement, which is about half as many that want to factor in early state primary polling.” While I’m all in favor of “thinning the herd," there has to be a better way to narrow the field.

If the debates cannot be fixed (by, for example, dumping media moderators and giving candidates more time to answer fewer questions), Democrats should jettison them in favor of much more revealing events, such as one-hour televised town halls and forums put on by labor, civil rights and other activist groups during which candidates get a couple minutes for speeches and serious questions get asked from people knowledgeable in a subject area.

In sum, Democrats seem to have wound up with the wrong format with the wrong participants. They really need to rethink a process in which Gabbard and Marianne Williamson have gotten free air time, but experienced senators and governors — including many of the most articulate moderates such as Montana Gov. Steve Bullock, Sen. Michael F. Bennet (Colo.), former Colorado governor John Hickenlooper, etc. — may be weeded out before a single vote is cast. The answer may be to revive the "kiddie table," allowing top contenders to face one another on a less crowded stage, and rewarding candidates who can break out (as Carly Fiorina did in 2016 on the GOP side) from the stage of lesser-knowns.

In any event, when the race does get down to a manageable few, candidates should take back the process from the Democratic National Committee and demand a more conversational, informative format in which all of them might look a whole lot better and the voters might learn a whole lot more.

Read more:

Paul Waldman: Democrats should stop freaking out

Eugene Robinson: The Democratic debate makes one thing clear: It’s time to narrow the field

E.J. Dionne Jr.: The first night of the CNN debate showed just how fractious the Democratic primary fight may get

Greg Sargent: The 2020 Democrats just took on Trump’s racism. But not how you’d expect.