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The 2020 Democratic Debates Aren’t Pleasing Anyone

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This isn’t just the complaint of one policy-minded campaign staffer. In dozens of conversations I’ve had with 2020 candidates, campaign aides, reporters, and political operatives, there’s been a consensus: Pretty much everyone says they hate the Democratic presidential debates. The candidates hate them. The campaigns hate them. The reporters hate them. The staff of the Democratic National Committee, which is responsible for putting them on, hates them too. On top of all that, viewership is dropping: from 18 million in June to 14 million in September.

Their reasons range from the logistical to the philosophical. The debates suck up time: Candidates and their top aides spend weeks practicing one-liners and potential comebacks. They suck up money: Campaign aides estimate that each team spends at least $20,000 on flights, hotels, and other expenses to bring the candidate, advisers, and prominent supporters to each site—and some spend much, much more. Campaigns don’t see the debates as having much payoff in connecting with the voters who will shape the party’s nomination process most: DNC rules dictate that debates can’t yet be held in any of the early-voting states. And they don’t cover all the subjects campaigns want to discuss: Several topics, such as health care, have been picked over repeatedly, while others, including the economy, haven’t been touched on much at all.

“The candidates and the campaigns probably only agree on two things in this race: First, we have to beat Trump. And second, debates with 10 people every month are a complete waste of time,” said an aide who helped prep one of the candidates onstage for the three debates, and who, like others I talked with for this story, spoke on the condition of anonymity out of concern for the professional consequences of sharing their grievances.

Months before much of the country has tuned in to the election, the debates have already exhausted the people most involved in the process. Yet next month, the Tuesday after Columbus Day, everyone will do it again. This time in Ohio. And it’s likely, since more than 10 candidates have qualified so far, to go back to being a two-night exercise, so pencil it in for Wednesday too.

“Debates suck,” said one Democratic operative who’s attended each debate. “I mean, it’s fun to hang out and drink with friends in a city that’s not D.C. Sucks otherwise on all levels.”

Has any element in a debate so far counted as a good use of candidates’ time or as a worthwhile discussion? I posed that question to an aide who’s been prepping one of the leading candidates. “Absolutely not,” the aide said. “It’s so much on the performance art of this, and we’ve lost the substantive debates we should have.”

Within minutes of the end of last week’s debate, commentators declared that it hadn’t fundamentally altered the dynamics of the race—as if 150 unevenly distributed minutes onstage were ever really going to overturn months of campaigning. The only debate moment that’s really registered this year was when Senator Kamala Harris took on former Vice President Joe Biden in June over his record on mandatory busing, but that shook up the polls for only a few weeks.

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