Let’s accept this modern fact of life: Television is the engine that drives our political machine, and the fuel of television is money. You will get money out of politics when you get money out of television, which will happen about the same time you get paper out of the bathroom. Sure, an all-bidet world is possible, but in our time and our world, it ain’t happening.
That said, it’s television, and except during the Super Bowl, we don’t watch it for the commercials. So when it comes to picking a president, no matter how much money you throw at TV advertising — in political parlance, that’s paid media — you still have to talk to reporters and participate in debates. That’s earned media, where TV pays the candidates in a currency called attention, welcome or not.
Which brings us to tonight’s tenth round of presidential debates sponsored by the Democratic National Committee. No one really knows how much these sound-bite-driven spectacles actually sway voters, but I have a critic’s rule of thumb: The more entertaining the debate, the bigger impact it has. And I submit as proof one Michael Bloomberg:
After spending $450 million to goose his poll numbers to the point where the DNC had to let him on a debate stage, Mayor Mike promptly did the biggest face-plant since Chevy Chase’s late-night show. Overnight, his favorables plunged 20 percent. The lesson was clear. Bloomberg can gin up the paid media all he wants, but if he stinks up the room again like he did in Vegas, Bloomberg News reporters won’t have to worry anymore about how to cover their boss.
Of course, that only happened because everyone else on stage was sizzling while the plutocrat was fizzling. It’s … television. You have to perform or people will tune you out. Especially in the early debates, there were a lot of bad performances, both by the candidates and the network stars asking the questions.
For that reason I’ve decided to rank the debates to date, based on my simple bread-and-circuses criterion — are you entertaining me? (There will be one exception to this rule, as you’ll see.)
#9. Miami, June 26–27, 2019, two debates (NBC)
Almost everyone who had declared for president was allowed to participate in the opening two rounds of debates, including folks woefully unprepared for a two-hour live national telecast (John Hickenlooper, Tim Ryan, John Delaney). Meanwhile, the top candidates were divided up over two nights of debates, so instead of the clashes voters actually wanted to see, they got Real Housewives of Miami-level arguing, like Eric Swalwell criticizing Joe Biden for being old, and Kirsten Gillibrand interjecting whenever the mood struck. (In one of the debate's more substantive moments, Kamala Harris aggressively targeted Joe Biden's record on race, leading her to briefly surge in the polls.) NBC moderators Lester Holt and Chuck Todd tried to sound in control, warning interrupters again and again, “You’ll get your chance!” Somehow, 24 million and 27 million people tuned in for the two nights, making these by far the most-watched debates until last week’s Nevada scrum.
#8. Atlanta, November 20, 2019 (MSNBC)
You know you're in trouble when your debate's most memorable moment isn't from the debate itself, but rather SNL's parody of it, four nights later. NBC’s news organization was already on thin ice before this debate. Revelations about its unsavory response to the Matt Lauer sexual harassment allegations led to a letter signed by four presidential candidates demanding “an independent investigation into the toxic culture” at the network. Rachel Maddow led an all-female panel of questioners, a nice symbolic gesture that did nothing to erase the perception that NBC talent wouldn’t know how to direct traffic in a one-stoplight town. Once again, unworthy candidates who knew how to filibuster were allowed to steal time from others, prompting a post-debate rant from Andrew Yang that was more interesting than anything during the debate. (That’s Andrew, not “John Yang,” NBC.)
#7. Detroit, July 30-31, 2019, two debates (CNN)
Let’s hear it for Steve Bullock. The Montana governor, whom I beat once in a foot race, would be many Democrats’ choice if we held elections the way we did in 1950. Unfortunately, sounding brilliant while keeping your cool on camera with Jake Tapper pointing to a giant countdown clock is how you show your mettle in today’s presidential politics. So, Bullock flopped. If it’s any consolation to him, CNN’s anchors were no better. They kept stepping on the candidates’ responses or took away time asking stemwinders. The fact that global healer Marianne Williamson was the most interesting candidate on her night is all you need to know.
#6. Houston, September 12, 2019 (ABC)
Three hours? And no Marianne Williamson?? That was the grim prospect facing viewers who strapped themselves in for the first debate in a one-night-only format, after 10 Democrats (including Williamson) were told their time in the TV lights was over unless they pulled their numbers up. Which they were unable to do because … they weren’t on television anymore. Unfortunately, the hoped-for clashes between various candidates failed to occur. Instead, the highlights were more like lowlights — namely, two uninspiring performances by Kamala Harris (who dropped out not long after) and Joe Biden (whose befuddled reaction when interrupted by protestors spoke volumes).
#5. Des Moines, January 14, 2020 (CNN)
Take a newspaper reporter from Iowa who sounds like she graduated from college three years ago. Add Wolf Blitzer. And Tom Steyer. Of all the disappointing debates this cycle, the Iowa debate stands out because it was the last one before that state’s first-in-the-nation caucuses, the field had been thinned to six, and expectations were strong. Instead it was an exercise in frustration and endurance, especially when Wolf Blitzer or Tom Steyer was talking. The debate's most interesting moment was unearthed the following day, when CNN discovered audio of a tense exchange between Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders that took place in the moments immediately following the debate.
#4. Somewhere in Ohio, October 15, 2019 (CNN)
This one wasn’t so bad. Small-town mayor Pete Buttigieg had an Obama-like performance, giving off the vibes of a guy who would be ready to lead on Day 1 (meaning he would look presidential on television from Day 1). Though the policy wonks liked how he took down Elizabeth Warren’s healthcare plan, the most compelling moment came when he took on now-forgotten Tulsi Gabbard’s criticism of American policy in Syria, which Buttigieg called “dead wrong.” CNN’s anchors, mindful of how poorly they’d kept order the last time they ran the debates, backed off, though in fairness the whole night felt subdued. When Mayor Pete is the most exciting guy in the room…
#3. New Hampshire, February 7, 2020 (ABC)
As I said not long ago, live TV is the best, and I would submit the purpose of these debates is really to find out which candidate will put on the best show opposite the president. When he first arrived on the political scene, Donald Trump was counter-programming, an insurgent, The Simpsons taking on The Cosby Show. Now Trump is the program and whoever survives the Democratic primaries will be the counter-program. New Hampshire was the last time viewers could watch Yang demonstrate, with his concise, thoughtful replies, why he was too cool for TV’s political hothouse. He dropped out after the primary. By contrast, Amy Klobuchar was lively, chatty, and combative, propelling her to a third-place finish in New Hampshire’s primary four days later. As in the first ABC-run debate, David Muir, George Stephanopoulos and Linsey Davis did little to distinguish or embarrass themselves. Mostly they stayed out of the debaters’ way. And this time ABC didn’t make everyone stay for three hours.
#2. Las Vegas, February 19, 2020 (NBC)
With at least two candidates on the edge of falling out of the top tier, and fresh chum Bloomberg now in the pool, this was a debate that even NBC’s anchors couldn’t screw up. They lightly umpired and basically let everyone have at it, resulting in the most electric opening 30 minutes I think I’ve ever seen in a political debate. While Bloomberg sputtered, looking (in the words of The Guardian’s critic) “angry, bewildered and contemptuous,” depending on the minute, all the other candidates unleashed blistering attacks on him and their other rivals. Months of campaigning, and eight rounds of debates, had turned the non-billionaires on stage into polished, focused combatants. Mayor Mike didn’t stand a chance.
#1. Los Angeles, December 19, 2019 (PBS)
Buried late in the holiday season on a network that has to beg for every dollar, the least-watched Democratic debate (6.17 million viewers) was also the best, by far. Judy Woodruff, the PBS NewsHour anchor, and her A-team of Amna Nawaz and Yamiche Alcindor came prepared with concise, meaty questions. Then they let the candidates talk. It felt less like a debate and more like a half dozen probing one-on-one interviews going on simultaneously. Was it the most entertaining debate? No, but it came as close to that sweet spot of info-tainment as 21st-century television is likely to get. Was it the most impactful debate? Again, no, thanks to the broadcast’s small audience and poor timing. But I watched and enjoyed every informative minute.
Tonight is CBS’s first time into the Democratic debate fray this season. A word of advice: Anchors, please shut up.
Tonight's 10th Democratic Presidental Debate airs at 8:00 PM ET/5:00 PM PT on CBS.
Aaron Barnhart has written about television since 1994, including 15 years as TV critic for the Kansas City Star.
TOPICS: 2020 Presidential Election, Saturday Night Live, Amy Klobuchar, Bernie Sanders, Chuck Todd, David Muir, Donald Trump, Elizabeth Warren, Jake Tapper, Joe Biden, Kamala Harris, Lester Holt, Marianne Williamson, Michael Bloomberg, Pete Buttigieg, Rachel Maddow, Steve Bullock, Tom Steyer, Tulsi Gabbard, Wolf Blitzer