Chapter 1: Debate Schedule.
The 2008 Democratic primary saw twenty-six presidential debates. For the 2016 primaries, the DNC chair and former Clinton campaign co-chair Debbie Wasserman Schultz, scheduled six debates.
Many of the debates in 2008 were unsanctioned debates. However, new rules in 2016 effectively barred Sanders from unsanctioned debates. Sanders could technically participate in them — but this would allow the DNC to “uninvite” him from the already scheduled, “sanctioned” debates.
Given that Hillary Clinton was so much more well-known than Bernie Sanders, there was little incentive for Hillary Clinton to participate in unsanctioned debates. (She would later back out of a debate she initially agreed on, prior to the largest primary, California.) Ultimately, there would be a total of nine debates in the 2016 cycle, giving Bernie Sanders a structural disadvantage since he would not be able to get out his name and message to the public.
Only four of the debates would take place before primary voting began. The first debate, on October 13th, was after the final date to be registered as a Democrat in New York (October 9th). That means if you lived in New York, one of the biggest and most important primary states — and learned about Bernie Sanders the first time he was on a televised debate — if you were registered as an Independent, then it didn’t matter if you wanted to vote for Sanders, you couldn’t change your registration to “Democrat” and vote for him. Three million people in New York were registered as Independent.
Martin O’Malley and Tulsi Gabbard were among several officials who called for more debates and a better schedule, saying it was unfair to Bernie Sanders or any other candidates who needed exposure (unlike Hillary Clinton). O’Malley had little political leverage, so it didn’t matter much that he complained, and Gabbard was disinvited from the first presidential debate for raising the issue. (Later, Gabbard was threatened politically after resigning from the DNC.) Even Howard Dean and Nanci Pelosi criticized the lack of debates.
The paltry debate schedule was also designed by the DNC to heavily favor Hillary Clinton by scheduling debates during unpopular viewing times and dates that would do less harm to Hillary Clinton if the debate did not go her way.
“But when you just look at the debate schedule, it’s hard to deny its absurdity — especially when you take a look back at political debates of years past,” wrote Alvin Chang, reporting for Vox.
It takes a lot of gumption to say that this was a “coincidence.” To make this claim, you’d have to believe that the DNC didn’t know when their own debates are traditionally held, when TV ratings are better and worse, and that more debates means a higher level of voter education and engagement.
Highly doubtful. Much more sensible is that they knew these things, but wanted to avoid exposure — because it would help Sanders.
It was an odd move, strongly inconsistent with the idea that the DNC is playing “neutral.” How can this be dismissed by those who still defend the DNC and Clinton campaign’s actions in 2016? Bernie Sanders needed to get out his name and message; the DNC set up the debates so that he couldn’t do that very well. You cannot look at the unusually low amount of debates, and the debates being scheduled during unpopular times and days, and say this was a simple accident.
There is no telling how many votes this affected. But what we do know — and surely the DNC and Clinton campaign did as well — is that the more Bernie Sanders became known among the public, the more people liked him. Clinton tended to trend in the opposite direction: as her visibility increased, her favorability declined.
The most reasonable conclusion is that the DNC knew that time and exposure were against Hillary Clinton, and favored Bernie Sanders, and therefore, a sparse debate schedule would help Clinton and hurt Sanders.
If the DNC were indeed running a fair and democratic primary election, they would want to get as much exposure as possible for both their candidates and enable a true “battle of ideas.” They would want to inform the public on the candidates — what they really stand for — and who is actually the stronger candidate. It is clear, though, even just from the debate scheduling, that their goal was not to inform the public on the candidates, the issues, and their positions.
The lopsided debate schedule made it that much more difficult for Sanders, a virtual unknown, to get the word out quickly enough to have a chance at winning. This was clearly done on purpose.