What if Debates Don’t Matter Anymore?

We’re trained to think primary debates matter. Historically they do. Or at least there’s tons of circumstantial evidence. Democrats will give this several more tries this cycle. At some point, maybe something will happen that impacts the nomination contest.

Not yet though. Politico/Morning Consult does a weekly survey of the Democratic field. Conveniently we have one poll from just before the debate (9/2 to 9/8) and another just after (9/13-9/15.) In between, candidates jousted for three hours.

Joe Biden talked about record players, appeared to adjust his dentures, lapsed into incoherence, and prompted calls to drop out of the race due to his inability to talk about racial issues in an appropriately modern way. He also pushed back on Medicare for All, and seemed to prompt the implosion of Julian Castro.

Before: Biden 33%, Castro 1%

After: Biden 32%, Castro 1%

Elizabeth Warren was judged to have performed well. Bernie Sanders needed industrial strength lozenges.

Warren +2, Sanders -1

Couldn’t have hurt her or helped him any, but that’s well within the margin of error.

Then we have the pack of second tier candidates who were striving to make progress. Kamala Harris seemed to perform the worst. Some thought Cory Booker was best. Beto O’Rourke got good marks. Amy Klobuchar was stronger than usual. Some, myself included, thought Pete Buttigieg failed to make enough of an impression.

Harris -1, Buttigieg =, O’Rourke +1, Booker =, Klobuchar +1

Technically, that mostly matches the consensus, but if a one point gain is a debate bounce, why bother?

Andrew Yang began with a bribe of sorts and then faded into the background. No change. Maybe how someone does is of little matter, but it’s a big deal to qualify for the debate. Candidates who don’t even appear should be at a disadvantage.

Tulsi Gabbard, Tom Steyer: No change (still 1% each)

Overall, it seemed the Big Three were not as strong as the second tier. Sanders and Warren disappeared for long stretches of time. Biden was charitably uneven. Many of the others were strong.

Before: Big Three 70%, Next Seven 23%

After: Big Three 70%, Next Seven 24%

Is it really possible debates just don’t matter? I’m sure there’s some influence somewhere. If Biden was performing as well as Warren, he might have a larger lead. If Warren had done very poorly, perhaps Bernie would have separated from her. Or another candidate would take up space right now.

The impact is very limited though. Unless you count keeping things as they were before debates began. Speaking of which, the Politico/Morning Consult poll from June 17-23, before anybody stepped on stage:

Big Three: 69%

Next Seven: 24%

We ain’t moving here. Keep in mind, ten candidates who missed the third debate, participated in the first two. Their share didn’t change either. I’d expected it to matter if there was one night of debating or two. If the Next Seven were on stage with the Big Three, or were medium-sized fish with the Delaneys around.

It didn’t. I’ve spent many words speculating that it mattered when Tom Steyer would qualify for a debate, because that would lead to breaking the candidates up over two nights, having groups of 5 or 6, and giving the second tier more space.

Maybe that’s the magic formula. But there’s no evidence suggesting it will matter. Why?

Biden and Bernie have very, very defined public personas. It may be impossible to get the majority of voters to change their minds on those two. When they have a good moment on stage, it’s within their established range. When something goes wrong, that’s already baked in too.

Warren did legit work to build herself momentum and get her candidate voice figured out. That was already done in the first half of the year. The majority of her improvement in polls was in the second quarter. She too, is well defined. Democrats like her, but still worry she won’t beat Trump.

When (and if) Warren starts winning primaries, this may change. Winning elections, even inside the party, makes a candidate look like a winner. Maybe she wins a Twitter battle with Trump. Neither of those things happen inside a debate.

The other candidates really are pretty decent. In a universe without the Big Three, they might get more space. In 2016, Ted Cruz, Marco Rubio, and John Kasich needed to deal with Donald Trump. But Jeb(!) was a paper tiger. There was more space for a candidate to get space as a first-time national contestant.

Because there are several of them and because they’re of somewhat equal quality and appeal, none are going anywhere. It seems very premature for them to hold a meeting and decide which one gets to be the fourth contender. Iowa is still four and a half months away.

Rubio wasn’t ready to drop out and join a Cruz-Rubio ticket right after Super Tuesday. It seemed too early with his home state of Florida voting a couple weeks later. He didn’t want to yield to his peer. We don’t know if that would have worked. We do know what refusal meant.

Don’t know if the Other Six (Yang inhabits a different strategic universe) should draw straws, play a rock-paper-scissors tournament, attempt feats of strength, or what, but absent a secret meeting where they all play cornhole and we wind up with a single option, the odds are increasingly leaning towards several more wasted debates.

They are creating some good video for the Trump campaign though.

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