Backgrounder: Improving the Democratic Debate Schedule

Debate viewership tally so far: 12 GOP debates, 186.3m viewers (15.53m per debate), 9 Dem debates, 72.03m viewers, (8m per debate).  As of March 10th, the Republicans have concluded their 12 debates.  The final total audience size for the 12 GOP debates is 186.3m viewers.  At their current rate, the 10 Democratic debates are on track to be watched by a total of 80m viewers, falling short by at least 106m viwers.  At 10.2m viewers, NBC's 4th Democratic debate was the second most watched Democratic debate, but still came in lower than any of the 6 GOP debates so far, including their two on a little watched cable network, Fox Business.  The 1/25/16 CNN Democratic "Townhall" drew 3.2m viewers, bringing in less than half the audience of the previously lowest watched major candidate event of the 2016 cycle. (Updated on Tuesday 4/19/16) 

In 2008, 16 of the 26 Democratic debates had enough viewers to be rated.  Those 16 debates were seen by a total of more than 75m people.  So even though the Democratic debates this cycle have received more viewers per debate, the total viewership of the 10 debates will come in only about 16.5m more than what the Democratic debates achieved in 2008, and just a little under half of what the Rs are getting this cycle with their better debate approach.  Very hard to spin any of this as positive for Democrats, or "maximizing" opportunities. (Updated on Friday 2/12/16)

Four More Debates Added - The Washington Post is reporting that the DNC and Sanders and Clinton campaigns have reached a deal to add four more debates in NH, MI, PA and CA.  This will bring the Democratic debate total for the 2016 cycle to 10.  It is also consistent with our recommended changes, which advocated one more debate before IA/NH and more debates after February.  We are obviously pleased with this development, but hope in the future a better schedule would not force candidates in the most important part of the campaign to be spending time negotiating over debates rather than reaching voters.  We will be updating this "backgrounder" over the next few days. (Updated on Wednesday 2/3/16)  

Full Debate Schedules - Here's a link to complete debate schedule, including the 12 GOP debates and the 10 scheduled by the DNC.  Note that in the first three months of 2016, the RNC has 7 debates scheduled, the DNC 4, 1 of which will be conducted in Spanish on the Spanish-language network Univision.  

Some in Clinton camp now regret limited debate schedule - An article by Patrick Healy in The New York Times Saturday morning, January 16th, contains the following: 

"Several Clinton advisers are also regretting that they did not push for more debates, where Mrs. Clinton excels, to more skillfully marginalize Mr. Sanders over his Senate votes in support of the gun industry and the enormous costs and likely tax increases tied to his big-government agenda.

Instead, Mrs. Clinton, who entered the race as the prohibitive favorite, played it safe, opting for as few debates as possible, which were scheduled at times when viewership was likely to be low — like this Sunday at 9 p.m. on a long holiday weekend."

Oct 23rd, 2015 - NDN has joined the chorus calling for a better Democratic debate schedule, writing: "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." 

A few stats: in 2007/8 Democrats had 26 debates, this cycle they will have 10.  The RNC has scheduled 12 debates, the Democrats will have 7 with one shown only on a Spanish language network.  In the all important Jan thru March window next year, when close to 60% of eligible voters will vote, the GOP will have 7 English language debates and the Democrats 3.  All in all the DNC will have 3 English language debates in prime time during the week for the entire nominating process, the RNC could have as many as 10. 

If the current debate viewing level for each party (16.61m vs 10.63m) holds through the remaining debates, the RNC's candidates will have a total audience of 199.32m people for their 12 debates.  The Democratic candidates will be seen by just 106.3m over 10 debates.  And even that number for the Democrats could be high as of the 4 remaining debates, one is in Spanish and another is with PBS, a network that simply doesnt have the reach of the commercial broadcast networks.  And in a new piece Simon's finds that there is clear evidence now that this early exposure is boosting not harming the GOP field.  

Regardless of the virtue of the original DNC debate strategy, the RNC has produced a far better approach that will guarantee their candidates hundreds of millions of more impressions.  This gap is so large that it could sway the outcome of a very close race, and the DNC should take steps to close this gap in the weeks ahead.  Simon's recent piece offers three simple steps the DNC could take today to address the problem, and suggests other things the Party could be doing to generate more interest in its candidates and emerging leaders (MSNBC forum good step, though still very limited in reach). 

We've built this backgrounder with our work and the most recent and best pieces from other sources to help keep people up to date.  If you agree with us that Democrats deserve a better debate schedule, join us in making your voice heard.  

From NDN

"A Very Good Week for Bernie Sanders; Our Creaky Democracy," Simon Rosenberg, NDN, 3/28/16.

"Dem/GOP Presidential Primary Debates Audiences in 2008 and 2016," Simon Rosenberg and Chris Murphy, NDN, 1/28/16. (Updated on Friday 3/18/16)

"As feared and predicted, 2nd Dem debate draws very small audience," Simon Rosenberg, NDN, 11/15/15

"Monday Musings on 2016: Clinton/Obama strong, Carson unraveling and a warning about Dems/2016," Simon Rosenberg, NDN, 11/9/15.

"Early Exposure Appears To Be Helping GOP Presidential Field," Simon Rosenberg, NDN, 10/17/15

"On Dem debates, progress, but more to do - 3 steps the DNC should take next," Simon Rosenberg, NDN, 10/10/15

Democrats are playing a dangerous game with the debate schedule,” Simon Rosenberg, TIME, 9/16/15.

"The Democratic debate schedule is a mess. Here's how to fix it," Simon Rosenberg, MSNBC, 9/9/15. 

"The Consent of the Governed," SImon Rosenberg and Corey Cantor, NDN, 12/17/14.  This analysis looks at how the decline in competitive states and races in our Federal elections is allowing far too few Americans to meaningful participate in picking their leaders, and questions whether our political system is still capable of providing "the consent of the governed." 

Media Appearences and Citations

"Hillary's debate desire: DNC rolls over now that she wants more Bernie bashing," Howard Kurtz, Fox News, 2/12/16.

"Hillary Clinton's Recurring Struggle to Connect With Young Voters," Ronald Brownstein, The Atlantic, 2/4/16.

"Clinton may have won Iowa, but she's got a lot of problems," Joe Garofoli, San Francisco Chronicle, 2/2/16.

"MSNBC, NH newspaper to hold unsanctioned Dem debate," Ben Kamisar and Rebecca Savransky, The Hill, 1/26/16.

"Sanders battle with DNC overshadows Dem Debate," Ben Kamisar, The Hill, 12/19/15.

"The 'astounding' levels of campaign ads are just getting started," Nik DeCosta-Klipa, Boston.com, 11/17/15.

"So far, the Republican debates are way more popular than the Democratic debates," Alvin Chang, Vox, 11/16/15.

"CBS Democratic debate draws lowest ratings," Hadas Gold, Politico, 11/15/15.

"Saturday nights with Hillary, Bernie and Martin," Hadas Gold, Politico, 11/13/15. 

"Democrats Eye More National Events As Anger Over Debate Schedule Grows," Sam Frizell, TIME, 10/16/15.

"Hillary Clinton should push hard for more Democratic debates," Greg Sargent, Washington Post, 9/16/15.

Simon discusses the 'debate' debate on KABC, 9/11/15. (starts at the 10:00 minute mark).  

Other Prominent Pieces and Op-Eds

"CNN picks up Flint Democratic debate," Hadas Gold, 2/7/16.

"Clinton, Sanders agree to debates in Michigan and California," Hadas Gold, Politico, 2/3/16.

"It's on: We're getting four more Democratic debates," Greg Sargent, Washington Post, 2/3/16.

"Game on: Sanders says he will attend MSNBC debate," Hadas Gold, Politico, 2/3/16.

"The battle between Clinton and Sanders is about to get a lot more intense," Greg Sargent, Washington Post, 2/2/16.

"There's a Democratic debate fight, too, and Bernie Sanders just upped the ante," Chris Megerian, LA Times, 1/27/16.

"Democratic debates set to 'maximize' exposure, Wasserman Schultz cliams, but evidence is dubious," Amy Sherman, Politifact, 1/20/16.

"Winners and losers from the fourth Democratic presidential debate," Chris Cillizza, Washington Post, 1/17/16.

"Clinton campaign underestimated Sanders strength, allies say," Patrick Healy, New York Times, 1/17/16

""Helping" Hillary Clinton with little-watched Saturday debates was a terrible plan," Matthew Yglesis, Vox, 12/18/15 (Updated from 11/13/15 version).

"Martin O'Malley and Bernie Sanders Bristle at Holding Debates on Weekends," Alan Rappeport, New York Times, 12/18/15.

"The Invisible Democratic Debates," Frank Bruni, New York Times, 12/17/15.

"18 million viewers tune in for CNN GOP debate," Hadas Gold, Politico, 12/16/15.

"Debates Help Fuel Strong Interest in 2016 Campaign," Pew Research Center, 12/14/15.

"Disappointing debate ratings spark Democratic campaign complaints," Gabriel Debenedetti, Politico, 11/15/15.

""Helping" Hillary Clinton with little-watched Saturday debates was a terrible plan," Matthew Yglesias, Vox, 11/13/15.

"Democrats scheduled debates on days when no one will watch," Alvin Chang, Vox, 11/12/15.

"Fox Business GOP debate draws 13.5 million viewers," Hadas Gold, Politico, 11/11/15.

"Former Democratic Chairs Deny Consutling on Debate Schedule," Sam Frizell, TIME, 11/9/15.

"Democrats Just Can't Muster That Much Enthusiasm for 2016," Jim Newell, Slate, 11/9/15.

"Insurrection Erupts at the Democratic National Commitee," John Heilemann, Bloomberg, 10/16/15.

"Some Democrats Push DNC Chairwoman to Allow More Debates", Peter Nicolas, The Wall Street Journal, 9/30/15. 

"How Democrats got bogged down in a messy dispute over debates," Greg Sargent, Washington Post, 9/21/15.

"Democrats demand more debate time as intra-party rift reaches boiling point," Lauren Gambino, The Guardian, 9/20/15.

"Democrats have a growing debate problem on their hands," Chris Cillizza, Washington Post, 9/20/15.

"DNC chair heckled over Democratic primary debates," Alex Seitz-Wald, MSNBC, 9/19/15.

"Pelosi joins calls to add more Democratic primary debates," Theodore Schleifer, CNN, 9/18/15.  

"Clinton in N.H. to counter Sanders, says she wants more debates," Matt Stout, Boston Herald, 9/17/15. 

"Clinton, DNC face pressure to add debates," Gabriel Debenedetti, Politico, 9/16/15.

"Two D.N.C. Officials Call for Adding More Debates," Maggie Haberman, New York Times, 9/9/15.

"Does the Sanders surge pose a serious threat to Clinton? Howard Dean weighs in," Greg Sargent, Washington Post, 9/8/15.