Publication / DecodeDC
October 8, 2015
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There won’t be a Trump to drive drama, launch attacks and draw viewers

All presidential debates are partly performance, but it’s likely Tuesday’s Democratic face-off will fall short of hitting high notes – especially when compared to the recent GOP shows.

Call it ironic. The first Democratic Party debate of the 2016 campaign is in Las Vegas, a city known for its big lights, big shows and big performers. But when the party’s two biggest acts – Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders – step up to their podiums Tuesday, audiences shouldn’t expect over-the-top thrills.

That’s primarily because the Democratic candidates are a different breed compared to the Republicans – smaller in number, bigger on policy specifics – call it wonky—and dare I say, a lot more boring? 

Poll numbers do a lot of the explaining.

Going into this first Democratic debate, former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton is ahead by a whopping 16.2 points, sitting at a 41 percent approval rate according toReal Clear Politics – a significant lead over her next closest competitor, Bernie Sanders.

Before the first Republican debate in August, a Fox News poll had businessman Donald Trump at 26 percent favorability, with former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush trailing at 15 percent – a much closer race.

Though Sander’s numbers are impressive because many experts previously cast him aside as a long-shot candidate, he does poll significantly behind Clinton, garnering 25 percent approval. It’s hardly a rat race.

And it won’t be a catfight either. Clinton and Sanders have vowed they won’t tarnish their campaigns with negative attacks.

“I think it’s going to be less raucous. I think it’s going to be more substantive. It’ll be a debate around issues of income inequality and social issues and education,” said Joseph Peyronnin, a journalism professor at Hofstra University in New York and former president of Fox News. “I think there will not be name calling – but I do think that the lesser-known candidates will try to score some points.”

Those lesser-known candidates — Maryland Gov. Martin O’Malley, Rhode Island Gov. Lincoln Chafee and former Virginia Sen. Jim Webb – are all polling nationally at around or below 1 percent.

“I do believe a couple of the other debaters have everything to gain from trying to take some chinks out of [Clinton’s] armor and for trying to challenge her on some issues,” he said. Still, “I don’t think it’s going to get as personal and we aren’t seeing anything leading up to the debate that’s going to put it at a level of conflict of what it was just before the Republican debate when basically Donald Trump was calling everyone else a loser.”

So that means, besides a challenge from the peanut gallery – meaning those three candidates with rankings smaller than peanuts – the audience’s focus is likely to be on the performances of Clinton, who has decades of experience in the government and is continuously likened to an automaton, and Sanders, a self-described socialist and a tenured politician with Einstein-esq hair.

This all means Tuesday’s debate will be quite a different show compared to the two GOP debates before it, where entertainment trumped (with a capital T!) policy-initiatives.

The first two Republican debates on Fox and CNN, respectively, were huge in terms of viewership. Both channels witnessed their highest network ratings ever: 24 million viewers tuned into Fox on Aug. 6, making it the highest ever rating for a cable news event. CNN’s viewership was only slightly less with 23.1 million tuning in.

They were both largely driven by hype—largely because they were the first televised debates of the 2016 political season and partly because of Donald Trump.

“I think millions will watch the [Democratic] debate. I don’t think it will be near the numbers the Republicans drew,” Peyronnin said. “Because I think the entertainment value, the circus atmosphere, is not present in this case. People will expect this to be a pretty serious debate as opposed to a name-calling mud fight.”

And, in terms of what’s good television, Robert Galinsky, the founder of the Reality TV School New York, suggests audiences might struggle when watching the Democratic candidates. “People are not watching television to listen to an audiobook. They are not there to watch C-SPAN.”

Neverthereless, audiences should expect a performance of another kind Tuesday. One where policy specifics take the place of “gotcha” moments. And one where Donald Trump may be mentioned by name, but will be taking the backseat — at least for now.