On Sept. 12, the third Democratic primary debate was held in Houston, Texas. The debate was hosted by ABC News and Univision and differed slightly from the previous debates in its structure. Most notably, being as only 10 candidates qualified, the debate was held on only one night rather than the two-night split of the past debates. I watched it all — all three hours of it. It was a relatively uneventful debate, but one with some serious structural and organizational flaws nonetheless. As the field of Democratic candidates is gradually diminishing, far too much focus of the debate was given to the current front-runners with little opportunity for lower-polling candidates to get a word in.
In order to qualify for this debate, candidates needed at least 130,000 individual donors in at least 20 different states and had to reach two percent popularity in at least four Democratic National Committee (DNC) approved polls. 10 candidates qualified for the debate: Joe Biden, Cory Booker, Pete Buttigieg, Julián Castro, Kamala Harris, Amy Klobuchar, Beto O’Rourke, Bernie Sanders, Elizabeth Warren and Andrew Yang. This left out some candidates who could not quite scrape by, such as Tulsi Gabbard and Marianne Williamson.
Where the candidates were placed on the stage was based on the last 10 popularity polls conducted by the DNC. So, the candidates with the highest averages were placed in the center with the other candidates spreading out according to lower polling numbers. Top-polling Biden was placed in the center, in between Sanders and Warren.
To no surprise, Biden was given the most speaking time at 17 minutes. Biden seemed to have received the most questions from the moderators and also the most time allotted for rebuttals. Watching Biden crash and burn for what seemed like an eternity is not what Americans want, or need, in our political atmosphere. The scope of the questions was a bit wider in subject matter than in previous debates, including questions about climate change, gun violence and criminal justice reform. However, when the debate is set with Biden center-stage receiving a majority of the questions, the candidates with true connections and solutions to these problems are silenced.
Lower-polling candidates were silenced both through the lack of questioning by the moderators and the rules themselves: ABC stated that if a candidate were to interrupt another, they would have their allotted response and rebuttal time reduced. Personally, I would love to see a candidate of color interrupt Biden as he rambles about the state of black communities. That is the purpose of a debate. When limited time is disproportionately given to the front-runner and others are punished for interrupting, the very idea of a heated debate with diverse viewpoints is undermined. There were three strong women candidates on that stage, but still no mention of reproductive rights or abortion. Alternatively, there was a large focus on healthcare. As important as healthcare is, we do not need to hear Biden tell the tear-jerking story of his family’s car crash for the umpteenth time. We need real policy and a discussion that raises the voices of women, the LGBTQ+ community and those who suffer from lack of healthcare and the attacks on their reproductive rights every day.
In the next debate, the organizers should randomly place the candidates on the stage. The candidates should be allowed to interrupt one another as freely as they would like and the questions should come from real, everyday people rather than repeating the same few canned questions that corporate media pundits have been asking the candidates for months now. Americans need a real debate, not a polite and gentle one. No more Biden center-stage, receiving low-ball questions on healthcare and education for three hours. Americans need fire, we need inspiration and we need diversity in questions and answers. The DNC and the organizers of these debates must do better, or they run the risk of steering Biden directly to the Democratic nomination, and thus the 2020 presidency back into the hands of Donald Trump.