Democratic Debates Are Very Senior Moments

Debates remain stale and milquetoast for very specific reasons

Publisher’s Riff

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Many observers of the 2020 Democratic debates so far are looking for radical, even revolutionary, moments. Or, rather, moments in which both moderators and candidates will enthusiastically ask and answer questions on a wide range of complex and unaddressed social, economic and equity issues. Many watching want earnest and very deep dive solution-based discussions on not just healthcare, but on affordable housing, tackling wage inequality, eradicating systemic racism, eliminating labor discrimination, creating better schools and ways in which we reduce a stubbornly high low-income population. In essence, folks want these debates as an opportunity to really dig deeply into some serious quality of life issues.

That’s not going to happen. Look at what happened last night and it can't be said enough: not sure how MSNBC could brag about itself checking off Black culture box by holding this debate in Atlanta in a Black-owned Tyler Perry studio and, yet, have its moderators (including the Black one) fail to ask any question about voting rights and voter suppression. First question should be about a Georgia that recently experienced hundreds of thousands of purged and deleted Black voters. With 2020 on the horizon, for some reason, Democratic debate moderators are not prioritizing the issue despite its massive importance and should be called out on it. The issue was finally raised, but not until Cory Booker, eager to catch some kind of fire, pushed it after more than an hour skipping over it.

This is typical for these debates. The range of questions vary, but they’re lazy due to their confinement to what we see in cable news headlines and only what the hosts and producers of key shows want to talk about. Any topic that presents too much complexity or screams for urgency or some form of mass social protest is avoided. Climate crisis, for example, is another one of those topics where it’s as alarming as hell, but moderators still seem reluctant to drill on it and candidates clearly show they don’t have good answers for it. So, it only got the to-do list treatment yesterday evening.

Better course of action would be for the DNC and networks to do single issue debates. Dedicate an hour or two debate to having candidates square-off on and totally unpack on one specific issue category. The current tendency to jam every issue into one session is never fulfilling and never gives us a real sense that candidates have genuinely thought these issues through.

There’s a key reason for that: these are very middle-class, very 45+ years of age, very $50-$60K annual salary, homeowner affairs. The issue of taxes being drawn out of their paychecks, property, and retirement accounts become much more prevalent. Most don’t really want any major change to their healthcare, the current bureaucracy of it scares them enough; they just want healthcare that’s available and good. And, oh yeah, many of the older folks (especially the churchgoing ones) don’t particular care for all these young people around them smelling like weed - sorry: that’s just the perception.

Candidate campaign teams and advisors aren’t putting as much thought into energizing anything less-income or lower age. They’ll talk the game of doing such, but the dominants in the field, for the most part, will ultimately dance to the whims of a specific set of demographics.

It’s one of the reasons Joe Biden, comfortably ahead in many key polls, won’t budge to the Twitter-gentsia and seems unfazed (for now) at the lack of open support from the younger blocs. One can argue that Biden is even dismissive of the younger bloc. He’ll worry about it later. It’s another reason why late entrant Democratic establishment moderates like Michael Bloomberg and Deval Patrick think they’ve got some kind of shot.

Much of it has to do with key exit polling data from 2016 and 2018. A pattern emerges.

Here’s overall 2016 exit polling on age and income worth noting …

2016 early Democratic primary state exit polling …

Iowa (Clinton win)

New Hampshire (Sanders win)

South Carolina (Clinton win)

Nevada (Clinton win)


Fast forward to the 2018 midterms for overall national exit polling and we see that pattern on age and income, again …

Older voters are much more present and dominant in primaries and that’s what Biden is focused on right now. Younger voters show signs of spiking up in the general election, and any nominee will need them energized by that time - but, for now, it’s a bridge to cross when the eventual nominee gets there. And despite the claim that Trump’s 2016 win was the result of a “White working class” tilt in his direction, let’s not forget that he actually won most voters making over $50K or more.