Choosing Their Nominee: The Democrats’ Not So “Invisible” Primary

The invisible primary just became a lot more visible.  

On the nights of June 26th and 27th, 20 of the 25 announced candidates for the Democrat presidential nomination took the stage in Miami – 10 candidates each night – in the first head-to-head debates of the 2019-20 election season. The twenty were chosen based on drawing at least 1% support in three polls or by raising money from at least 65,000 unique donors. Three more sets of debates are scheduled for late July, September and October.  These are perhaps the most important campaign events taking place during what political scientists dub the “invisible primary” – the period prior to the start of the actual delegate selection process in next February’s Iowa caucuses.  For party activists, the debates provide an opportunity to gauge candidates’ policy positions and their electoral viability. The goal is to select a candidate who most represents the party’s ideological center-of-gravity while generating enough support to win the general election. Based in part on these judgments, the activists will then use endorsements, financial contributions and other signaling devices to begin culling candidates from the race even before public voting begins.  

The debates are a reminder, however, that the media also plays an important and somewhat independent role in this winnowing process.  And its interest does not fully coincide with that of party activists.  As a for-profit industry, the media focuses much more on attracting a large audience – a prerequisite for generating advertising revenue.  To do so, its coverage tends to emphasize controversy, and to center on candidate personalities and horse race strategy as opposed to substantive policy discussion.

Coverage of the first two Democrat debates highlight the media’s independent role during the invisible primary.  One indication is the relative media focus on the second of the two debates. Due to the luck of the draw, most of the top-tier candidates, including the purported front-runner former Vice President Joe Biden, senators Bernie Sanders, Kamala Harris, and Kirsten Gillibrand, and Mayor Pete Buttigieg, were in the second debate.  This left Senator Elizabeth Warren, along with senators Corey Booker and Amy Klobuchar, as the main attractions during the first debate.  Not surprisingly, the second debate attracted greater media attention and, as a consequence, generated higher ratings, with nearly 18.1 million viewers tuning in – a number that broke the record for the biggest television audience for a Democratic primary debate – compared to about 15 million who watched the first debate.  This meant that although Warren was judged by most commentators to have performed well, she does not appear to have generated much if any momentum from her debate performance.  Nor did others, including Booker and former Housing and Urban Development Secretary Julian Castro, both of whom were also viewed as having had a strong performances during the first debate.  Instead, it was the second debate that seems to have had the bigger impact on the race, at least as gauged by media commentary and early polling.

The debate format and the questions asked by moderators, and to whom, also showed the media’s focus on the horse race and its role handicapping the field in ways that favored some candidates over others.  Candidates were only allowed 60 seconds to answer questions and 30 seconds to respond to follow-ups, which meant they might get at most 10 minutes of talking time during a two-hour debate.  This left little time for substantive discussion, and instead placed a premium on candidates’ ability to generate memorable sound bites. Indeed, on some key issues, such as whether they supported providing health care to undocumented immigrants, candidates were simply asked to raise their hand rather than to explain their positions. Not surprisingly, on both nights those candidates who entered the night near the top of the polls ended up getting the most speaking time.  To be sure, the differences were slight, often measured in minutes or less, but with 10 candidates vying to get their message across, even slight differences in speaking time can be significant.  This left second-tier candidates forced to cut into the conversation in order to be heard. As a consequence there were frequent moments of candidates talking over each other. 

Equally important, however, is how the media conducted its debate post-mortem. By focusing on a specific exchanges between candidates, or framing the debate through a specific lens, media coverage can influence perceptions regarding winners and losers in ways that do not necessarily coincide with party interests, as Republican activists learned to their dismay in 2016 when media coverage of Donald Trump’s debate performances helped solidify his lead in the polls.  Although the Democrat field lacks a candidate with Trump’s capacity to stir an audience, the post-debate coverage does appear to have benefited some candidates while hurting others, at least marginally.  Harris, in particular, seems to have gained the most due largely to the media replaying her exchange with Biden regarding his opposition during the 1970’s to federally-mandated forced busing to integrate public schools.  Harris sought to personalize the issue, and to paint Biden as out-of-touch on civil rights, by noting that she was bused as part of the second class to integrate her public school. Biden seemed to respond defensively, arguing that he supported busing as a local choice, but not as a federal mandate. Most media accounts of the second debate highlighted that exchange as the lead story – a choice that worked in Harris’ favor, even though in the weeks after the debate it became clear that Harris’ stance on busing was, in fact, quite similar to Biden’s. By then, however, the media had already cast the debate as a victory for Harris, and she received an 8% boost in the aggregate polls, pushing her to 15% support and in a virtual tie with Sanders and Warren for second place behind Biden. Most of Harris’ surge, moreover, appears to have come at Biden’s expense; his post-debate aggregate polling numbers dropped six points down to 26%.

It bears repeating that this was one set of debates, and that it is still early in the nominating race.  The upcoming debates will undoubtedly generate more media-defined moments that may further reshuffle the top half of the field.  However, most of the current front-runners have the resources to make it to Iowa, no matter what happens in the debates.  For second tier candidates, on the other hand, the prospects of surviving the invisible primary are far less certain.  As of today 14 candidates appear to have cleared the threshold for the July debates, which leaves 11 candidates jockeying for the final six debate slots.  Moreover, for the September and October debates, the bar to get on the debate stage increases to 2 percent in four qualifying polls and 130,000 unique donors, which may further winnow the field. Whether these second-tier candidates participate in debates or not, history teaches that the media’s focus on the horserace and its desire for a competitive nominating contest will lead them to signal that these candidates are not electorally viable.  That negative coverage will likely contribute to their dropping out of the race even before voting begins, as campaign resources begin to dry up.

Potential debate flash points going forward include candidates’ positions on health care, immigration, trade policy and foreign policy.  In handicapping the field, two cleavages stand out.  One is between candidates such as Biden, Klobuchar and Gillibrand who emphasize their relative pragmatism and ability to defeat Trump versus the more progressive firebrands like Warren, Sanders and Harris who believe the Democrat voters have moved left and will embrace a more left-leaning candidate. A second divide is generational, pitting the older candidates including Biden, Warren and Sanders against a younger cohort who are seeking support from millennial voters. It remains to be seen which side of these divides will prove more popular, with whom – and how the media will judge the results.

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