“They did not look like joyful warriors the other night,” said Terry McAuliffe, a former Virginia governor and former party chairman. “People want to be uplifted, people want to be motivated — especially with all the insanity with Donald Trump. Our team has to do a better job at being positive.”
The growing fears reflect a reassessment from the start of the year, when many Democrats believed that the party’s strong field of senators, governors and mayors would shine over the course of high-profile debates. Democrats would gain valuable airtime to compete with Trump and build a public case against his presidency.
Instead, after four nights of debates over two months, Americans have seen candidates tearing into each other’s records on questions of race and identity, racing to the left on health care and immigration, and criticizing the legacy of former president Barack Obama, who is enormously popular among Democrats.
Rather than unifying around what many in the party consider the most important political struggle of their lifetimes — ending the Trump presidency — Democrats are showcasing their divisions over what they stand for and who should lead them, potentially muddling their message to the detriment of the ultimate nominee.
“The overall concern I heard from tons of people was it’s so negative,” said Neera Tanden, president of the Center for American Progress. “People weren’t happy about seeming to undermine the Obama legacy, but the number one concern was the negativity. If the broader country is tuning into this, are they excited or are they moderately repelled? Does it make them want to support who comes out of this?”
Primary fights are often bloody, but that does not necessarily prevent a party from unifying later, especially against a divisive figure like Trump. But with the sheer size of this Democratic field, along with divides between liberals and centrists, some party leaders worry about the fight turning so bitter so quickly.
The nominating contest is heading into a crucial next chapter. Some candidates are starving for oxygen and could soon be forced from the race. The Democratic National Committee has established a higher polling and fundraising threshold to qualify for the next debates, which could narrow the field considerably.
Some of the candidates are growing more agitated by the debate format. They think it provides too little time — even for those who speak most often — and places too high a premium on conflict manufactured by moderators seeking to create good television and candidates trying to break out of the pack.
“I’m supportive of having a debate, not one-minute assertions,” former vice president Joe Biden told reporters last week. “Look, it’s not anybody’s fault the way it’s worked. There’s 20 candidates and that’s a good thing.”
But the rules of engagement don’t allow for much of a dialogue, he said, with candidates allowed to speak only in chunks that are as short as 15 seconds.
Biden struggled more than most, often winding up to an answer before seeing the red light signaling his time was up, then cutting himself off midsentence. “Anyway . . .,” he trailed off in a deflated conclusion to more than one response.
He was far more crisp when addressing reporters the morning after the debate, growing combative at times and expressing his points with greater clarity during a give-and-take outside the Coney Island diner in Detroit.
“That’s not a debate. And I understand why it has to be that way,” he said. “But I’m looking forward to getting in a place where we can actually exchange ideas.”
A few miles away and a few hours later, one of his chief antagonists agreed.
“To be very honest with you, it can be a frustrating process,” said Sen. Kamala D. Harris (Calif.). “There are, I think, better venues where we’re able to have a real conversation. So many of these issues just cannot be captured in 60 seconds, much less 30 or 15.”
In last week’s debate, Biden faced incoming fire from several candidates trying to dent his front-runner position, while Harris confronted zingers from Rep. Tulsi Gabbard (Hawaii) and others.
“It’s just a reality of it — it is a process that is conducive for sound bites,” Harris said. “In my long experience in public service, I will tell you, no good public policy ends with an exclamation point. But these debates, that’s the kind of thing that it rewards.”
But one reason it has rewarded “that kind of thing” is Harris’s own pointed and personal attack on Biden during the first debate. The lessons other campaigns learned from that exchange — which was replayed for days and earned Harris a fundraising boost and a jump in the polls — was to attack hard and often.
“We’re up here with makeup on our faces and our rehearsed attack lines, playing roles in this reality TV show. It’s one reason why we elected a reality TV star as our president,” Andrew Yang, an entrepreneur who has run a surprisingly strong campaign, said at the end of the second debate. “We need to be laser-focused on solving the real challenges of today.”
The size of the field, with an unprecedented two dozen hopefuls, also means that low-polling candidates often have to be louder to gain traction. The large cast of characters may have felt at one point like an embarrassment of riches, with a grab bag that seemed to provide something for everyone, but many voters now say it feels like a burden, with little-known candidates getting valuable television time.
It’s a lot for voters to sift through, and there is a hunger for the field to shrink to a more manageable level, especially given the Democrats’ pent-up eagerness to start taking the fight to Trump.
Many party leaders hope the weaker candidates start dropping out in coming weeks, allowing voters to focus on a smaller field and providing for a more focused debate.
“I think people want it, but nobody is saying it,” said Sean Bagniewski, chairman of the Polk County Democrats in Iowa. “People are so desperate to be fair to everybody after 2016 that nobody wants to say it. But all of us would like to see the candidates have more screen time and talk more and engage more.”
Voters are also frustrated that some of the main contenders — such as Biden and Sen. Elizabeth Warren (Mass.) — have yet to face off on a debate stage together, instead spending their time onstage swatting away attacks from more minor candidates.
Several multicandidate events are coming up that could give some of the hopefuls a final chance to shine. The Iowa State Fair begins this week, with almost every candidate expected to go, eat pork and just about anything else that can be served on a stick, and speak to a rowdy crowd in what has long been a testing ground for presidential candidates.
There is a major party fundraising dinner Aug. 9, and the Polk County Steak Fry on Sept. 21, which outlets from CNN to the Daily Show on Comedy Central are planning to cover.
But toward the end of August — the deadline for qualifying for the September debate — candidates who have yet to register in the polls could decide to drop out.
Candidates need at least 130,000 unique donors, plus at least 2 percent support in four different polls, to make the stage for the next pair of debates, in September and October. Eight candidates have said they have met both requirements: Biden, Warren, Harris, Sen. Cory Booker (N.J.), Mayor Pete Buttigieg of South Bend, Ind., Sen. Amy Klobuchar (Minn.), former congressman Beto O’Rourke (Tex.) and Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.).
Several others appear on the verge of qualifying. But 15 of the candidates — including two senators, two House members, two governors and the mayor of the country’s largest city, Bill de Blasio of New York — have yet to hit either requirement, and some are running low on campaign cash.
If more than 10 candidates qualify, the DNC says it will likely again hold two nights of debates, but it has yet to work out the details.
In hosting last week’s debate, CNN made several modifications to the rules from the first faceoff. Candidates were asked to raise their hands to be recognized, rather than interrupting one another. They were given time for opening and closing statements, which took place outside of the two-hour debate time, and they attempted to cover fewer topics to give enough time for a fuller discussion. The networks also have hosted a number of hour-long town halls with candidates, where they have more time to make their case, and those are expected to continue.
Democratic Party officials argue that the debates have at least focused on policy rather than personal attacks.
“We have stressed that this needs to focus on a substantive policy discussion, and I think both debates did. We want to make sure issues important to voters come up,” said Xochitl Hinojosa, a DNC spokeswoman. “What happened in 2015 and 2016 with the Republican debates was a lot of name-calling. They weren’t necessarily focusing on the issues. That will never happen with us.”
Viewership numbers for the second debate dropped significantly from the faceoff in June, triggering some alarm that the Democratic contest may be driving away more viewers than it is attracting. But even with the lower numbers, it still drew five times more nightly viewers than a Democratic primary debate held by CNN at almost the same time, in July 2007, featuring then-Sens. Barack Obama (Ill.), Hillary Clinton (N.Y.), Biden (Del.) and five others.
That race offered compelling visions, historic candidacies, and a policy-rich debate where viewership grew significantly over time — something that could still happen during this primary contest.
“I am not one of the Democrats wringing my hands. It’s a long damn election,” said Mitch Landrieu, the former mayor of New Orleans. “Elections are messy, and they’re playing against a guy who doesn’t play by the rules. It’ll be a brutal election, and the more practice they get, the better.”
He noted that in 2016, many Sanders supporters complained that the party had tilted the primary process in Clinton’s favor. That has put pressure on the DNC not to appear to be prematurely sidelining any candidates.
“You may recall four years ago, there was a lot of dust-up because people felt it was rigged,” Landrieu said. “People wanted an open and robust debate — and this is open and robust.”
Some warn that the candidates have to address complex policies, like health care, in a way that resonates with most Americans, rather than devolving into a squabble over hard-to-follow distinctions.
“I just don’t like these Democrats who are attacking each other on issues that are favorable to Democrats,” McAuliffe said. “We own the health-care debate. But if you watch the debates, the American people are scratching their heads over where the party is on health care. I found it mind-numbing — and I pay attention to these plans.”
He added, “I’m imploring the Democrats: They have got to lay out a comprehensive plan of what they’re going to do to solve what the American people care about every day. Most look at Democrats, and they’re all fighting on the issues and attacking on each other. We have to focus on Trump.”