On Dem debates: progress, but more to do - 3 steps the DNC should take next

So, give credit where credit is due. This week the DNC took a few important steps to close the gap with the superior RNC debate schedule:

- First, it began letting people the debates, including the first one this Tuesday October 13th, was coming. The overall promotion is still far less than what is appropriate given how central these debates are to the DNC this election cycle but it is a start. Asking all Democrats to watch the upcoming debates, making the watching of these debates central to what it means to be a Democrats and driving viewership to these debates should become the primary mission of the DNC over the six months. As I’ve written elsewhere, the RNC simply built a far better and smarter debate schedule, and the DNC has to become obsessed with closing the gap. Using the immense database of the DNC and all the other tools at its disposal to drive viewership to the debates has to become far more important than it is. 

- Second, the strategy behind the newly announced dates for the 5th and 6th debates is good. They both take place during the week (unlike debates 2-4 which are on the weekends) when viewership is much higher, and they in that magic window between Feb 1 and Mar 15th when almost 60% of all eligible voters will vote.

So while there is some good news here, the DNC still needs to do more. Even with the improved DNC plan, the RNC’s superior debate schedule (more debates, more weekdays, better media partners, closer to the actual voting when more people are paying attention) guarantees them hundreds of millions of additional impressions over the life of the debates. This gap is so huge and so consequential that the DNC must do more to attempt to close it. In previous op-eds on MSNBC and in Time, I have suggested possible changes to the current DNC strategy, but whatever the DNC does to do to try to close the gap there are three things it must do in the coming weeks

Move the New Hampshire debate - This all important debate has been scheduled for December 19th, the Saturday night before Christmas. Simply this may be the single worst weekend of the entire year to schedule a debate if the goal is to get viewers. So the debate should be moved either to early December or early to Mid January. There are plenty of open weekends in that window, but of course it would be best to find a night during the week to gain maximum audience

Add another debate in late February, early March - Almost 60% of eligible voters will vote in the February 1 through March 15th window, with 21 states voting in the first two weeks of March alone. This two week crush will involve far more states and media markets than the general election will, and no candidate, no matter how much money they have, will be able to run an immersive paid and free media effort in these 21 states at the same time. So what this means is that for many of those voters the only real contact they will have with the campaign is through a debate. Understanding this, the RNC has schedule 4 and perhaps 5 English language debates during this magic window. The DNC has only one, February 11th in Wisconsin. Ideally the DNC should add 2-3 more during this window to match the RNC, but at this point adding one more in a large state like Ohio is a must at this point. The current approach is not providing enough information to Democratic voters to make up their minds, and will also certainly guarantee very low turnouts and lost party building opportunities in these critical states.

Be Open to More Debates - The rigid defense of an insufficient debate schedule hasn’t really made a lot of sense given how many important party leaders and leading Presidential candidates have suggested that the DNC makes improvements. But where the schedule is most indefensible is in the insistence only six debates with the last English language debate taking place on February 11th, when only 2 states will have voted. The primaries are scheduled to go through June, and in 2008 Clinton did not concede until early June. In addition to adding a debate in late February or early March, the DNC should say, publically, that they are open to more debates between March 15th and June if the nomination fight is still raging. The current schedule ensures there is no English language debate when 98% of the country is voting. We can do better.

A few additional points:

Be creative, engage Millennials – There are lot of other ways to reach voters than the traditional debate approach with old fashioned media partners. Innovative ways of the candidates reaching voters should be explored with newer media outlets like Yahoo News, YouTube, Facebook/Instagram, Huffington Post, Twitter, Buzzfeed and even services like Twitch. Garnering strong support from the Millennial generation – the largest generation in history - is arguably the Democrat’s highest strategic priority this cycle and more must be done to engage Millennials this cycle.

Use the DNC database and website – One thing the DNC should do immediately is announce that they are going to live stream every major candidate appearance by all the candidates including Larry Lessig for the remainder of the cycle. Every forum like the New Hampshire Democratic Party annual event a few weeks ago should be live streamed, recorded, put on you tube and promoted through the vast and powerful DNC database and social media assets. The DNC could use young and interesting party leaders like Tulsi Gabbard, the Castro brothers,Kamala Harris, Kirsten Gillibrand, Gavin Newsom. Joe Kennedy, Cory Booker or some of this cycle’s terrific Senate and House candidates to “host” these events, garnering exposure to a next generation of thoughtful leaders who could use far more national exposure. Short packaged 60 or 90 second videos, designed for younger more digitally inclined viewers could be created. If done right, these events will garner far more viewers and impressions than Saturday afternoon candidate forums on cable news networks.

The bottom line:

The RNC has produced a far better approach to showcase their candidates than the DNC has this cycle. The good news is that there is time for the DNC to take steps to close that gap. Some of the steps required have to do with the debate schedule, but the Committee could also become far more creative in finding other ways to bring its candidates and emerging leaders to the public. The very small and relatively old Democratic field, coupled with an inadequate debate schedule, means that the Party is not sufficiently building the public profile of an emerging generation of leaders, as the Republicans are this cycle, and often happens in a Presidential nomination fight. The DNC should do more to acknowledge this strategic challenge and take create, aggressive steps to ameliorate it, starting with some of the suggestions I’ve spelled out here. Failure to do so will not only hurt the Democrats in 2016, but could also do harm to the party for years to come.