Publication / DecodeDC/ Scripps News
November 13, 2015
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Democratic debate schedule raises questions about goals

Will anybody actually watch the next Democratic debate?

Saturday marks the second of six Democratic primary debates, and it’s also a continuation of the party’s odd schedule.

The two-hour back and forth begins at the prime drinking time of 9 p.m. and will host a winnowed-down field – Hillary Clinton, Bernie Sanders and Martin O’Malley – but the question this time won’t be whether it will be a snooze fest. No, it will be whether anyone will watch.

Many commentators have been scratching their heads since Democratic National CommitteeChairman Debbie Wasserman Shultz announced the debate schedule in early August. Critics maintain the debate dates are so horrendous that it’s a wonder if the DNC wants a TV audience at all.

The first Democratic debate aired in early October from Las Vegas. While held during prime time on a Tuesday, it also was scheduled during game four of the baseball playoffs between the Los Angeles Dodgers and New York Mets. Although it attracted 16 million viewers, maybe that number would have been larger had the DNC decided against  competing with the MLB.

The Saturday air date for the forthcoming debate is something  dogged Vox reporter Alvin Chang found completely uncommon –  only seven out of 100 debates have taken place on a Saturday since the 2000 election cycle.

The next Democratic debate is scheduled for Dec. 19 – another Saturday event that also happens to air during prime spiked-eggnog season. Then there’s the Sunday debate on Jan. 17 scheduled during the NFL playoffs, the debate slotted for the Thursday before President’s Day weekend in February, and a final Wednesday debate in early March — more than a month after the Iowa Caucuses and a week after Super Tuesday.

Democratic underdog Martin O’Malley, currently polling at 5 percent of Democratic primary voters

according to a New York Times/ CBS News poll released Thursday, has challenged the schedule from the beginning, saying there weren’t enough of them, and that they were ill-timed.

In a speech in August, O’Malley argued that the schedule was designed to help Clinton cinch the nomination.

“This sort of rigged process has never been attempted before. Whose decree is it exactly? Where did it come from? To what end? For what purpose? What national or party interest does this decree serve? How does this help us tell the story of the last eight years of Democratic progress?” O’Malley said.

Bernie Sanders, polling in second at 33 percent according to the same poll, focused on the number of debates. He told CBS’s Face the Nation in August, “I’d like to see the DNC have more debates. I would like to see labor union groups. I would like to see environmental groups, women’s groups, gay groups … different constituencies, host events and have us debate. So I believe the more debates, the better.”

Representative Tulsi Gabbard of Hawaii, a vice chairwoman of the DNC, has also voiced concerns with the limited schedule. On an appearance on MSNBC in October, she said, “More and more people on the ground from states all across the country are calling for more debates, are wanting to have this transparency and greater engagement in our democratic process at a critical time, as they make the decision of who should be the next person to lead our country.”

Gabbard later told the press that her invitation to the first Democratic debate was rescinded by the DNC as a reaction to her comments. The DNC has denied those claims. Chairman Schultz told reporters, “The congresswoman was asked to focus our candidates on the issues that are important to Americans to draw a contrast with the Republicans.”

Looking at the remaining debate schedule, it’s hard to deny that something doesn’t seem a little off.

Yes, the first debate brought in an impressive audience. But the Democrats probably shouldn’t expect that type of viewership this time – and maybe that’s the point.