How the paltry 2016 debate schedule helped Clinton win the primary

There were many ways the DNC and other Democratic Party leadership tipped the scales to help nominate Hillary Clinton in 2016, but the biggest issue in my opinion was the horrendously inadequate debate schedule.

Although the DNC did eventually agree to add four extra debates near the end of the primary season – one of which never occurred – the 2016 schedule was whimpering weaksauce compared to the 2008 schedule. Throughout the 2007-2008 Democratic primary season, there were 20 debates. 20! Additionally, a whopping 12 of them happened before the first-in-the-nation Iowa caucuses. In contrast, throughout the 2015-16 primary season, only nine debates actually occurred, and only four of them happened before the Iowa caucuses.

Then-Senators Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton at a CNN debate in Austin, Texas on February 21, 2008. Photo by Deborah Cannon, Associated Press

The importance of exposure to the public through debates, especially to insurgent candidates like Obama or Sanders when challenging an entrenched favorite like Hillary Clinton, cannot be understated. In the roughly seven months between April 26, 2007 (the first Democratic debate of that season) and January 3, 2008 (the Iowa caucuses), there were 12 debates. During that time, Barack Obama rose 9.5% in the Iowa polls, with noticeable bumps upward after the July 23, September 26, and December 13 debates. While it’s impossible to prove that the debates caused these polling increases, it seems probable that the increased publicity may have played a role.

We see a similar story play out between October 13, 2015 (the first Democratic debate of this past election) and February 1, 2016 (the Iowa caucuses). About a week after that first debate in October, Sanders’ polling average in Iowa jumped from 27% to 41% before falling back down. Two weeks after the November 14 debate, Sanders’ poll numbers climbed from 31% back up to 41%. In total, between the first debate and the Iowa caucuses, Sanders’ polling numbers improved by a whopping 17%. If Sanders could pull off a 17% surge against Hillary Clinton in three and a half months with only four debates, imagine what he might’ve been able to do if he’d participated in 12! This is all based on the fairly reasonable assumption that, for strong candidates with low name recognition, exposure to the public through debates can and does bring in new supporters.

Then-presidential candidates Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders argue during an NBC-YouTube debate in Charleston, South Carolina on January 17, 2016. Photo by Randall Hill, Reuters

The limited debate schedule wasn’t coincidence, either. In an April 27, 2015 email, Clinton advisor Charlie Baker points out to other Clinton campaign officials that it was in their best interests to “limit the number of debates” and “start the debates as late as possible.” Baker goes on to discuss how the other campaigns want more debates, but assures his colleagues that DNC communications officials – including Mo Elleithee, who worked on Clinton’s 2008 campaign – will announce the six-debate schedule (the Clinton team’s preferred one) before any other candidates officially enter the race.

If the Democratic Party refrains from tipping the scales like this in the future, they might just allow the voters to pick a candidate who can win a general election. Regardless of the ethical implications of a supposedly neutral body favoring one candidate over another, the party’s decision to throw its weight behind Hillary Clinton was a bad one. She was clearly the wrong candidate for the anti-establishment political moment, and now we’re all paying the price for a massive miscalculation.


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