The Democratic Party Sets Its Debate Schedule
by Gaius Publius
This may be old news (as in, not yesterday) but I've seen almost no mention of it, so I wanted to help publicize one craggy corner of the jockeying within the party for the right to name its nominee. Remember, the voters don't have the largest say in who will be any party's nominee. The party does.
This electoral season, the Democratic party, nominally led by DNC Chair Debbie Wasserman Schultz, has decided to hold six presidential debates during the primary season. Here's the list of dates according to CNN, which will host the first debate (my occasional emphasis):
CNN and the Democratic National Committee announced Thursday the network will host the first Democratic primary debate in Nevada on [Tuesday] October 13. The exact location will be announced in the coming weeks.The rest of the schedule, according to CNN:
For reference, here's the early part of the Democratic primary schedule:The other five debates will be hosted by:
- CBS, KCCI and The Des Moines Register in Iowa on [Saturday] November 14
- ABC and WMUR in Manchester, New Hampshire on [Saturday] December 19
- NBC and the Congressional Black Caucus Institute in Charleston, South Carolina on [Sunday] January 17
- And two more will be hosted in either February or March: One by Univision and The Washington Post in Miami, Florida, and another by PBS in Wisconsin.
- Monday, February 1 — Iowa caucus
- Tuesday, February 9 — New Hampshire
- Saturday, February 20 — Nevada caucus (Dem)
- Saturday, February 27 — South Carolina (Dem)
- Tuesday, March 1 — Super Tuesday
The Saturday before Christmas? If you wanted to kill the Nielsen ratings, this is how you'd do it. (I kept looking for a debate during the Super Bowl. Maybe that February date-to-be-determined is the one.)
The CNN article notes an objection by Bill Hyers, an O'Malley strategist:
"It's ridiculous," Hyers wrote, noting that Democrats held 15 primary debates in 2004 and 25 debates in 2008. "The campaign for presidency should be about giving voters an opportunity to hear from every candidate and decide on the issues, not stacking the deck in favor of a chosen candidate."Keep his "giving voters an opportunity" and "not stacking the deck" comments in mind. Hyers has things wrong, exactly backwards.
"The Party Decides"
Prior to the 2012 race, CJR interviewed Georgetown professor Hans Noel, a co-author of a 2008 book on presidential races called The Party Decides: Presidential Nominations Before and After Reform. Here's part of that interview (again, my emphasis):
Let’s start with the claim made in the title of your book, which is “the party decides” who the nominee is going to be. At one level, that sounds almost banal. Is there something about your findings that is controversial, or contrary to conventional wisdom?I think if you ask yourself — "What are the collective goals of the 'high-profile actors' in today's Democratic party, and who can they 'trust' to execute those goals?" — the debate schedule makes a ton of sense.
I think that there’s a fair amount that’s contrary to conventional wisdom. You see a lot of analysis of primary campaigns, both from political scientists and in the media, that orients everything around how this candidate is going to win in this state or build this result into winning later, and it’s all about these individual candidates who are competing.
The key insight of the book is to look at presidential nominations not from the point of the view of the people trying to get the nomination, but from the point of view of the party that’s trying to bestow it. There are only a handful of people in the party that are running for office. Most of the people in the party are not running for office, but they really care about who wins the nomination and who wins the general election. And so we should tell the story from the point of view of the players in the party who have an opinion about who the nominee should be and can do something about it.
I think that’s the big difference. We generally talk about individual candidates building a campaign, hiring people, doing the strategy, and all of these things. And they are doing that, but they’re doing it in the context where there’s a bunch of other people who are very, very important, who have a lot of influence, and can kind of decide, “Look, you can build all the campaigns you want, but if you’re Pat Robertson, you’re not going to be taken seriously, no matter how much money you’ve earned.”
Whom are you talking about when you talk about “the party”?
That’s part of the controversy about the book, which is that it’s hard to identify. Our argument is that the party is not just the formal DNC and RNC chair and the official hierarchy. It’s all of the people who have made a commitment to be part of the group that’s coordinating together to try to advance the party’s interests.
You could say the voters count too, because they’re doing some type of coordination and trying to encourage their friends. But their contribution is much smaller, because they don’t have as much influence. So we focus more on the high-profile actors, but we have an expansive definition to encompass all the elite actors who are trying to help the party achieve its collective goals.
And those goals are to find a nominee who can win, but who is also someone they can trust. Whether they can trust them because they’re in the right place ideologically is part of it, but it’s richer than that. It’s someone who they think will advance party goals over their own personal goals. One of the problems with someone like John McCain in 2000 is that one of his signature issues was campaign finance reform, which many Republicans were not pleased with. So, here’s somebody who, with the power he has as senator is doing things we don’t like. We make him president, and maybe he’ll do even more things we don’t like. You don’t want to nominate that person.
So what is the process through which this group makes its decision? And what are some of the key indicators of that decision?
They make their decision by talking to each other. These are people who are interacting with each other at various conventions, and in social settings. And they are debating amongst themselves the merits of the candidates, just as there is a debate in the media and ordinary voters are debating and so forth. But they’re listening to each other in particular because they know that they have particular insights beyond what some voter who just heard about the candidate knows.
These folks might not tell you what they’re thinking while they’re still figuring it out, but one way to see it happening is through endorsements. When one of the elite actors says, I support Mitt Romney, that’s part of that conversation. And it’s a signal to other people that the private conversation about the person being for Mitt Romney is for real.
A moment ago you said voters were typically less important than party elites in this process. Of course, the decision is ultimately made by voters in primaries and caucuses. What role do endorsements play in shaping that choice?
When endorsements start to converge, voters can sense that most of or all of the party is for a particular candidate. For the most part, people who are voting in the primaries are partisan, and they listen to that party signal. We show in the book that the relationship between who has the most endorsements and who does well is strongest among partisan voters. Independent voters don’t pay much attention, but then independent voters are a smaller share of the primary electorate.
But probably the biggest way in which endorsements matter is that they’re a way for us to observe the support that’s going on behind the scenes. ...
After all, the frontrunner's leading challenger wants to take apart the insider game. I'm not sure how much support he's going to get from the "high-profile actors" who are part of that game, if any.