Five hours after it began (with a 21-hour break in the middle), the second Democratic primary debate ahead of the 2020 election has come to an end. Twenty candidates over two days, scrapping over a variety of topics … determined by a cable news network.

It’s admittedly a weird way to run things. There’s a reason to partner with a cable network: Your debate will be on cable TV. But it’s a bit strange to let the same network that figured each debate segment should begin with 10-minute “Monday Night Football”-style introductions be the primary driver of the topics presidential candidates will discuss. This is rude and misleading: The intros are from corporate and the topics are determined by CNN’s journalists. That those journalists are the ones deciding what Democratic voters learn more about is, again, odd.

So what did they talk about? As we did following the first round of the debate on Tuesday, we made a chart showing the flow of the evening on Wednesday, including the approximate number of minutes spent on each subject.


(Philip Bump/The Washington Post)

(It includes a brief aside to discuss school busing in the middle of a longer segment about criminal justice issues.)

The totals, then, look like this (excluding the opening and closing statements).

Topic First night Second Total
Health care 21 24 45
Immigration 10 17 27
Gun control 9 0 9
Electability 13 6 19
Climate change 12 13 25
Infrastructure 3 0 3
Racial divide 9 6 15
Economy/trade 10 7 17
Wealth tax 4 0 4
Student debt 5 0 5
Foreign policy 11 6 17
Criminal justice 0 15 15
Busing 0 3 3
Women’s issues 0 9 9
Mueller probe 0 6 6

These are approximate durations and loosely described categories. But the focus is obvious: lots of health care, immigration and climate change. Those topics, you’re probably aware, are ones that tend to be near the forefront of what voters want to hear more about. They also spent more time on electability than foreign policy, which, while an important subject to Democrats, may not be the most useful balance over the long run.

On Tuesday night, the candidates all weighed in on the offered topics fairly evenly, with the candidates leading in the polls getting more opportunities to do so (in part because they got time to rebut charges made by their opponents). On Wednesday, things were a bit more uneven, with people such as Sen. Michael F. Bennet (D-Colo.) getting an opportunity to weigh in less than, say, Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.). As on Tuesday, the leading candidate — here former vice president Joe Biden — weighed in on the most segments.


(Philip Bump/The Washington Post)

Here’s how things looked on Tuesday.


(Philip Bump/The Washington Post)

Here’s a thought experiment: Those tuning in for both nights were treated to 45 minutes of discussion about health care, involving all 20 candidates at one point or another.

The health-care debate on both nights tended to emphasize arcane points of disagreement between the candidates on sweeping proposals. Those attuned to the debate may have found the discussion informative; those not attuned to it may well have been baffled.

If you are one of those who watched all five hours of the debate (or, really, all four-plus hours of debate, once you take out the intros and the ads), would you say you have a better understanding of where the candidates stand on health care? Can you articulate businessman Andrew Yang’s position? Can you articulate Biden’s?

If not, why not?