The critics are right: If the point of presidential primary debates is to give candidates a forum to make their case to the tens of millions of people who will pick their party's nominee, the current Democratic debate calendar is wholly insufficient to the task at hand. There are too few debates, too many are on weekends or holidays when viewership is much lower, and there aren’t enough close to when the most consequential voting will take place.
Before we get into the devilish details, it's important to look at next’s year’s very front-loaded Democratic primary calendar: The four early states -- Iowa, New Hampshire, Nevada, and South Carolina -- vote in February, followed by 21 more states between March 1 and March 15. The result is that the Democratic nominee will be effectively locked in by mid-March, only six weeks after primary voting begins. It is potentially a very compressed calendar.
As of today, the Republicans have ten debates scheduled before mid-March, while the Democrats have four. Of those debates, the GOP has six debates scheduled in the ten weeks closest to the actual voting, while the Democrats have just one.
The only Democratic debate scheduled for Iowa is taking place 10 weeks before the caucuses, on a Saturday night, and the only New Hampshire debate is happening on the last Saturday before Christmas.'
In 2016, the GOP will have debates in Iowa, New Hampshire, Texas, Florida, and twice in South Carolina -- all consequential states. The only debate the Democrats have scheduled currently in 2016 is on the Sunday night of the Martin Luther King Day weekend in South Carolina.
Rather than being close to the voting -- when people are paying attention -- the only Democratic debate scheduled for Iowa is taking place 10 weeks before the caucuses, on a Saturday night, and the only New Hampshire debate is happening on Dec. 19, the last Saturday before Christmas, when the last thing on anyone's mind will be politics.
Of the eight debates the GOP has scheduled with actual firm dates, six are during the week when viewership is higher. Of the four Democratic debates with firm dates, only one is during the week. The rest are on the weekend, and two -- the Iowa and South Carolina debates -- are also during holiday weekends.
There are three ways the Democratic National Committee can improve the schedule:
- Move more of the existing debates to weeknights
- Add more debates in the key states prior to March 15
- Remove the limit on debates in case the nominating process goes beyond March 15.
The DNC should also try to get the 2015 debates in Iowa and New Hampshire moved to better days during the week, add Iowa, New Hampshire and one other debate to the early 2016 window, and lock in the proposed Florida and Wisconsin debates before March 15. If in February the election looks like it is going to go to late spring, more debates can be added. There's no reason to have a cap, or to force candidates to agree to one.
In the digital age, engaging partisans early in the campaign cycle is critical to building an excited base of volunteers and small-dollar donors, such as buoyed both Howard Dean in 2004 and Barack Obama in 2008. The Democratic Party simply has no other tool as powerful as these debates to engage the millions of people needed to win elections in 2016 up and down the ticket in all fifty states. And this tool should be more aggressively deployed for the good of the whole party.
The last time Democrats had an open presidential race, the DNC held 19 debates, starting in April of 2007. The end result of that wide open process was a 53% victory in the general election by Obama and unprecedented levels of citizen engagement in our politics. That wide open and early system helped produce the best election result for the Democratic Party in 44 years, and should only have been significantly altered if there was a powerful rationale and argument from the party leadership. This is particularly true given the enormous policy commitment Democrats are making today to reforming our political and electoral systems to give more Americans a more meaningful voice in their democracy.
While the Democratic Party cannot replicate its 2007-2008 approach, it can improve the current one. As a lifelong Democrat, I am grateful that candidates Hillary Clinton, Martin O’Malley and Bernie Sanders have all asked the DNC to make changes to the current debate schedule. For the good of all Democrats across the country, let’s hope they get on with it in the days to come.
Simon Rosenberg has worked on two Democratic Presidential campaigns, spent time at the DNC in 1992 and 1993, and ran a competitive race against former Gov. Howard Dean for Chairman of the Democratic National Committee in 2005. He currently runs the center-left think tank, NDN.