Partner Alex Conant Writes on How to Un-Break the Presidential Primary in the Washington Post

March 2, 2020

How to un-break the primaries

Hold more debates — and more kinds of them

It may be hard to believe — does it feel as if we haven’t had a chance to see the candidates square off against each other? — but the biggest change in presidential primaries over the past decade is the dramatic reduction in the number of debates.

In 2008, the Democratic candidates debated 26 times, while Republicans faced off 21 times. In 2012, Republicans debated 20 times. But in 2016, the candidates debated roughly half as often, and the Democrats are on a similar pace this cycle.

The reduction started after Mitt Romney’s 2012 loss to Barack Obama. The Republican National Committee’s post-election autopsy called the number of debates “ridiculous” because “they’re taking candidates away from other important campaign activities” — namely, fundraising to pay for TV ads.

In an attempt to protect future front-runners, the RNC sanctioned a limited number of debates in 2016 — a move establishment Democrats supporting Hillary Clinton were happy to follow. The problem is that voters often make decisions based on what they see of the candidates in authentic, unscripted moments; that’s why campaigns value earned media so much more than paid media, and why the debates are do-or-die events. That voters feel they get something out of the debates is clear, given that their ratings can reach NFL levels: 19.7 million people watched the Democrats’ Las Vegas faceoff.

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