Presidential primary debates are useless. They are intended to give voters insight into how each candidate will perform against their general election opponent, and give the candidates a chance to appeal to voters, but that is not what they do. In an age where it takes dramatics to be heard, the focus of debating has shifted from giving voters information that will help them choose a candidate, to giving candidates a chance to have a moment when they’re finally able to use their prepared attack lines.
Taking a look at the debates that have occurred during the 2020 election cycle, not a single one has provided clarity for more than a few people. When the debates began in July, there were twenty candidates on stage, taking up six hours of the week to discuss their vision for the country, and why they believed they should be president. The fact that voters were supposed to be able to differentiate between John Delaney, John Hickenlooper, and Steve Bullock, all while not really being told how their three separate and very similar, versions of Medicare for All worked, is preposterous. People lead busy lives and the majority of voters cannot waste time learning the names of candidates not in the top five, much less understanding the intricacies of healthcare policy enough to differentiate between policies that all say roughly the same thing.
The other aspect of primary debates that is infuriating is the seeming inability for candidates to break the habit of trying to say the most outlandish thing they can have a speechwriter come up with, just to have a day of news coverage dedicated to it. During the June 2019 debates, Representative Eric Swalwell demonstrated this issue perfectly. In an attempt to make an argument against former Vice President Joe Biden, Swalwell said the party needs to “pass the torch” to a new generation of leadership. Clearly, Swalwell was speaking about Biden’s age and how that has been seen as a roadblock to him being the nominee, but the line only served to make the debate look like reality television. By trying to make a moment for himself, Swalwell ended up hurting himself, and only further cementing the idea that pre-written quips that are meant to seem off the cuff are not effective, and only give the candidate delivering them an aura of immaturity.
Aside from the fact that primaries are not useful for most voters trying to make up their minds, they are also unfair. The fact that Tom Steyer has been able to, and Michael Bloomberg beginning to be allowed to buy their way onto the stage is a sign that there is something wrong with the debate process. Both men are able to stand on the debate stage simply because they have the money to keep themselves in the race as long as they see fit, despite the fact that they both have all of their key policy positions represented by other candidates on the stage. Compare these two men to women like Kamala Harris and Kirsten Gillibrand. These are two women who were unique in their candidacies, and had signature policies to champion on the stage, both of whom were pushed off the stage due to lack of fundraising power and fear that women could never be electable.
The final, and arguably least important issue with debates is how many of them there are. There have been eight debates to date, with four more scheduled before the end of March, and those might not be the last of them. Having the same group of five candidates as a permanent fixture on the stage, with another five rotating in and out, is not helpful to voters. Having one debate per month leading up to the vote beginning, and now having one every ten days is too much. There is an argument to be made that these last few debates will help shape the race, now that votes are being cast, but nothing demonstrated in the most recent debate shows any indication that these upcoming debates will change much of anything.
No matter how the debates play out, one thing is clear, they do not move the needle enough to warrant having so many of them. Hosting twelve debates over the course of a primary process, all of which are roughly three hours long, is a colossal waste of time. No candidate is a skilled enough debater to shift the election in their favor, and most voters do not pay enough attention for the debates to help them make up their minds.