The Democratic debates just might make for compelling reality TV

Lorraine Ali
Los Angeles Times

Two nights. Twenty contenders. Dozens of promises. One election that’s still 17 months away.

Viewers, steel yourselves for the return of “The Campaign,” with its ever-expanding roster of candidates, awkward meme-producing moments and more confabs than can be explained by voodoo economics, fuzzy math, binders full of women or baskets of deplorables.

Television’s longest-running reality competition commences this week when NBC News, MSNBC and Telemundo host the first round of Democratic debates from Miami. And if this run-up to the primaries is anything like the last one, we’ll have at least 10 more of these media-sponsored spectacles — “Naked and Afraid” for the clothed and ambitious — before the party chooses its nominee for president.

The fun begins this week when a record number of White House hopefuls, including an unprecedented number of women, spend Wednesday and Thursday night trying to convince the blue base that they’re the party’s best hope in restoring sanity to a Washington Gone Wild.

Former Vice President Joe Biden enters the fray with the characteristically wordy promise: “Make America America Again.” Sen. Elizabeth Warren’s fist-in-the-air slogan is, like her, more direct: “Persist!” There’s no catchphrase more indelible than the image of Sen. Bernie Sanders arguing the merits of democratic socialism, hair a mess, tie askew. His campaign sticker: “Bernie.”

Whatever the slogan, the 20 of 23 announced candidates who qualified for the first bout were split into two groups of 10, and they’ll debate one another for two hours, in two separate face-offs, over two nights at the Adrienne Arsht Center for the Performing Arts. Wednesday’s contestants are Warren, Sen. Cory Booker, former Rep. Beto O’Rourke, Sen. Amy Klobuchar, former Rep. John Delaney, Rep. Tulsi Gabbard, former HUD Secretary Julian Castro, New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio, Rep. Tim Ryan and Washington state Gov. Jay Inslee.

Thursday’s challengers are Biden, Sanders, Sen. Kamala Harris, South Bend, Indiana, Mayor Pete Buttigieg, Sen. Michael Bennet, author Marianne Williamson, Rep. Eric Swalwell, Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, entrepreneur Andrew Yang and former Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper.

And if a busload’s worth of folks from the same party arguing opposing views on a national stage isn’t enough to fragment the base, there are several other aspirants with their hat in the ring — Montana Gov. Steve Bullock; Miramar, Florida, Mayor Wayne Messam; and Rep. Seth Moulton — who didn’t meet the Democratic National Committee’s threshold to join the debate.

Buckets full of candidates: Qualifying for the debate required candidates to reach at least 1% in three polls or show they had at least 65,000 donors, with a minimum of 200 donors in at least 20 states.

Are you bored yet? How about overwhelmed? While you’re deciding between the two, here’s more mind-numbing minutia.

The Democratic National Committee took the names of those who qualified and divided them into two buckets: candidates with polling averages of at least 2% and everyone else. Then came the random drawing. Officials determined the makeup of each night’s group by plucking names from said buckets as if it were game night at the senior center. It’s unclear if anyone actually yelled “Bingo!” when the results were announced.

The madness makes perfect sense, though, when you consider that the last cycle’s early Republican debates were referred to as a cattle call, a circus and a hot mess because of the record number of contenders — and back then there were “only” 17. At the first meeting, the top 10 polling candidates took the prime-time spot, while seven others met earlier for what was called the “happy hour” forum.

Not all seemed happy they had a few scant minutes apiece to unpack their complex policy plans, especially since the cameras were aimed at the one guy who used his time coming up with childish nicknames for his opponents: Lyin’ Ted and Low-Energy Jeb. At least late-night hosts were amused.

The media are still fixated on Trump, albeit for entirely different reasons. The threat of impeachment, the repercussions from multiple obstructions of justice cited in the Mueller report and this week’s red-herring act — Iran! Send troops to the Middle East! Deport thousands more immigrants! Lazy Joe! — are ratings catnip. And that’s a problem for the upcoming debates.

Klobuchar’s and Inslee’s arguments for better prescription drug coverage or stronger climate change legislation are unlikely to inspire the same sort of adrenaline rush. Where’s that addictive knee-jerk nationalism, outrage and disgust that news outlets and audiences now expect?

Today’s tabloid presidency aside, 2019’s early round of debate candidates face an even bigger challenge heading into Wednesday and Thursday’s live broadcasts: Shooting a hole in one another’s theories without sinking the entire Democratic ship is a delicate operation.

If they cause too much damage to their competitors’ reputations, they may end up handing the election to the enemy — meaning Trump, not the lefty senator at the podium next door. Do they all pile on Biden, the Democrats’ surest path to the Oval Office, according to today’s polls, or tread lightly? Then there’s the question of who’s pro impeachment and who’s con. And for Pete’s sake, don’t forget to smile, because we’ve heard Buttigieg is the potential spoiler here and guys like Yang need all the help they can get.

The pressure ahead of such a critical election is palpable, and there’s already been grumbling about the running order of the debate. The main criticism is that the lineup is lopsided: Thursday has more star power, featuring four of the five highest-polling candidates, while Wednesday now appears to be Warren’s to win.

Jostling for space onstage: Where each candidate will stand during the debates was determined by polling, according to NBC. Warren and O’Rourke were awarded center stage Wednesday night. Biden and Sanders are the focal point on Thursday. Hickenlooper and Delaney will need flares or confetti cannons to be noticed.

A colleague here at the Times suggested a “Hollywood Squares” setup might be the fairest way for all those running to get their time. But with just nine boxes, someone would have to be cut or seated off camera at the “Kids Say the Darndest Things” table. It’s a recipe for resentment. There were likely arguments on the old “Squares” set too over who earned the right to occupy the center box. Paul Lynde or Charo? Vincent Price, hands down.

The overcrowding has resulted in a logistical nightmare not dissimilar to what we’re seeing across our own city, minus the rats and empty promises by local leadership.

So why are there more presidential candidates now than ever before on both sides of the aisle? The theory is that neither party is as unified as it once was. (In the Democratic race alone you’ve got moderates, liberals, progressives, democratic socialists and whatever Williamson stands for.) Today’s small-fry entrants can reach millions of potential supporters directly via social media, and fundraising no longer means pandering just to big money: Click on any campaign website and you’ll see “Donate” buttons starting as low as $5. When the price of admission is equal to a mediocre coffee-ish drink at Starbucks, everyone can afford to become invested in politics.

We buy in because the debates are a chance to see how our horse performs. Do they stumble or streak into the 2020 Democratic primaries? The key is pacing, because it’s a marathon, not a sprint.

And then the presidential debates begin …