May not. It’s easy, in the abstract, to assume that debate moderators are doing voters a disservice, particularly because each of us has our own ideas of what issues are most important to cover, which themselves might not reflect the voting population at large. We see, for example, another Democratic primary debate in which health care eats up a big chunk of the discussion — about half an hour, according to analysis by Bloomberg Politics — while there’s not one question about climate change or immigration. But maybe … that’s how Democrats would prioritize things?
Applying the Bloomberg tallies across all four debates, we see that Democratic candidates have spent a combined 2½ hours talking about health care. The next most popular subject has been President Trump and the Republicans, though health care has occupied nearly twice as much airtime. Toward the bottom of the total are jobs and education.
It’s important to note something at the outset here: These categories are fairly rough approximations of what’s being discussed. Some topics, such as taxation, flow across the boundaries above. If you’re curious what Bloomberg includes, they’ve indexed every word of each debate by topic.
So how does that ordering compare to what voters want to hear? In June, Suffolk University, working with USA Today, polled likely primary voters and asked them that question directly. The results?
Notice where Trump sits on that chart. The headline of the USA Today article covering the poll noted where the president ranked in the priorities of Democratic voters: “What do Democrats want to hear about at the debates? (Hint: It’s not Trump.)”
Yet, as the first chart above shows, there’s been a lot of discussion of Trump. By comparing the Suffolk-USA Today poll results (excluding those without an opinion on what they wanted to hear) with the actual subjects discussed, we can see how much Democrats are hearing about the topics they care about.
On the chart below (which again required some awkward matching of topics between the poll and the Bloomberg categories), dots that appear above the dotted lines are ones that have been discussed more than they generated interest in the Suffolk poll. Dots below the line are ones that have been discussed less than voter interest would suggest.
You’ll notice that health care is both the most discussed topic and the one that voters are most interested in. In fact, the subject is perhaps underrepresented in the debates.
Here again, though, we run into a problem with our categorizations. Health care is a complicated subject involving a lot of different aspects. The bulk of the conversation in the Democratic debates, pushed by debate moderators, has centered on a very specific subset of a subset of that conversation: how candidates view the cost of expanding Medicare. It’s probably fair to assume that while Democratic voters want to hear about health care, the cost of expansion may not be the most urgent component of the issue.
Climate change (stashed under the category of “environment”) is about evenly represented across the debates, as voters would have liked. Another caveat: This is one poll, and other polls may show more interest in the subject. (Whether voter interest is itself a useful guide to what should be discussed is its own debate, of course.)
Some subjects — the possible impeachment of the president, for example — may drive more urgency in debate conversations than would be reflected in a June poll. There’s been more discussion of guns in the debates than voter interest might suggest, but there was also a series of mass shootings shortly before the third debate that shifted some attention to that topic. There was a lot of discussion of foreign policy on Tuesday night because of Trump’s actions related to Syria and Turkey. Debates are a chance to get candidates to address issues of importance, and those issues can change.
What’s particularly notable on the last graph above is how little attention education and jobs have gotten, relatively speaking. These are fundamental issues of concern to voters but, often, not terribly exciting debate topics.
Of course, we could make the same point about funding mechanisms for health-care policy proposals that are unlikely to pass the Senate. But then, who are we to say? The debate hosted by The Washington Post isn’t for another month.