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Will You Watch Tonight’s Democratic Debate? The DNC Probably Doesn’t Care Either Way

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As 10 presidential hopefuls descend upon a crowded debate stage tonight in Atlanta, Ga., to duke it out with their fellow Democrats, some Americans have one important question on their mind: Again, already?

Wednesday marks the fifth DNC-sanctioned debate, and with four behind us and another seven ahead, a slew of impeachment hearings in Washington, D.C., and two late-ticket entries into the race to the Oval Office, election fatigue might be finally setting in. It doesn’t help that a recent analysis of the debates found they haven’t done much to move poll numbers and that the candidates at the top have remained reliably so, even when their performance on the national stage was deemed lackluster.  

“There’s a segment of folks who are tired of hearing the same debate over healthcare for the first hour every debate,” said Jamal Raad, who served as the communications director for former presidential candidate and Washington Gov. Jay Inslee. “It must be in the [Democratic National Committee] constitution that the first hour of every debate is the same fight. It’s bizarre.”

More questions were asked during the October Democratic debate about Ellen DeGeneres’ relationship with George W. Bush than about climate change, a clear sign that the debates need structural reformation, said Raad.

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Former Vice President Joe Biden appears on television screens in the Media Center during the Democratic Presidential Debate at Otterbein University
Chip Somodevilla—Getty Images

And while there’s no official rule in the DNC constitution about the repeated healthcare debate, there were some specific rule changes that Chair Tom Perez announced last December in an effort to deal with an abnormally large field, an incumbent president with a uniquely aggressive debate style, and perceptions that the DNC had been secretive and biased toward Hillary Clinton in the 2016 elections. 

The DNC, he said, wanted to create a “level playing field” among candidates. Perez took two years and held between 80 and 100 meetings with experts and officials to draft the schedule of 12 debates between 2019 and 2020, with escalating qualifications that would naturally winnow the field. 

“My goal in this framework is to give the grassroots a bigger voice than ever before; to showcase our candidates on an array of media platforms…and to reach as many potential voters as possible,” said Perez at the time. “That is how we will put our nominee in the strongest position possible to defeat Donald Trump.”

But viewership has been steadily dropping.

The first debates, broadcast on NBC in June, brought in 15.3 million viewers. The fourth, shown on CNN in October, brought in just 8.3 million viewers, a 46% drop. A whopping 24 million Americans tuned into President Donald Trump’s first debate on Fox News in August of 2015, an all-time record.

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Sen. Kamala Harris (D-Calif.), right, speaks to former Vice President Joe Biden, left, as Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) looks on during the second night of the first Democratic presidential debate on Thursday, June 27, 2019, at the Arsht Center for the Performing Arts in Miami.
Al Diaz—Miami Herald/Tribune News Service via Getty Images

Still, analysts say that it’s not the potential voters that candidates and the DNC are trying to reach during these marathon debates. 

“It seems like a lot of it is a show for the political class, and it helps to set perceptions that they then propagate,” said David Brock, founder of MediaMatters and American Bridge.

The political class and the media then diffuse the information into the mainstream. “It may be intangible, but I do think these debates affect the atmospherics around the race, and they certainly affect the commentary that precedes the debate and follows it.”

That influence is hard to measure, but it is present, said Kathleen Hall Jamieson, director of the Annenberg Public Policy Center at the University of Pennsylvania.

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Democratic presidential candidate Members of the press work in the media workroom during the Democratic Presidential Debate at Texas Southern University’s Health and PE Center on September 12, 2019 in Houston, Texas.
Justin Sullivan—Getty Images

“Debates let the reporting community re-anchor their narrative in exposure to all candidates who are still viable in the field,” she explained. “It’s the one opportunity for those who have not yet risen to the top of the polls. They can nonetheless get into media spaces where they get to be compared.”

For candidates with less name recognition, “this is their biggest time to shine in the race, so it’s actually incredibly important and helpful,” added Raad.

Second and third tier candidates have found it difficult to achieve breakout moments in the debates, but they sometimes get another essential boost that keeps them in the race. Raad said that Inslee received a significant bump in donations after a strong performance in the second round. “A good debate performance can catapult you in financial support,” he said. 

And while some campaign representatives have complained about the cost and time that it takes to prepare candidates for debates taking place away from early primary states, Raad said Inslee found debate preparation useful in all facets of his campaign. “It actually became pretty productive to have sessions where we were thoughtful about our message because it’s applicable to everything,” he said. 

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Erin Burnett, CNN anchor, from left, Anderson Cooper, CNN anchor, and Marc Lacey, New York Times national editor, listen during a Democratic presidential primary debate hosted by CNN/New York Times at Otterbein University, Tuesday, Oct. 15, 2019, in Westerville, Ohio.
John Minchillo—AP Images

A debate each month works to take some attention away from the gravity pull of Trump and to refocus the news narrative. It requires the media “to cover the existence of a Democratic contest,” said Jamieson. 

It’s very possible that voters will tune into some of a debate or just one debate, she added, and they’re not going to become fatigued because of that. “People dip in and out of debates, and because the news covers it before and after, we’re increasing the likelihood that we’re building up the learning about the distinctions between and within parties,” she said.

So while the media and members of the political class might suffer from debate fatigue, typical Americans don’t. “The news agenda is changing every three minutes in this crazy world, and at some point, i’m going to cast a ballot in a primary and then in a general election,” she said. “I’m pleased to know these things about the candidates. What would it mean to say i’m fatigued? It would mean I’m a very lazy person who’s not going to invest the energy in becoming informed enough to cast a vote.”

The frequency of the debates will also prepare the eventual Democratic candidate to take the stage next to Trump.

“I wouldn’t say the common voter is paying attention at this point,” said Republican strategist Evan Siegfried. “We’ve seen again and again that the most important quality for democrats is finding somebody who can beat Donald Trump and, let’s be honest, unless he refuses to participate in any general election debates, we’re just waiting to see how they perform on that debate stage.”

It’s important to thoroughly vet candidates, said Siegfried, and pressure felt on the debate stage can actually push them to adapt their campaigns. Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) was repeatedly asked how she planned to fund her healthcare program in the third and fourth debates, and eventually released a plan ahead of the fifth.  

“Running for president is the world’s most expansive and painful job interview that’s ever been designed,” said Siegfried. “And it’s becoming even more so, given the criteria of finding the candidate who will beat Donald Trump.”

More must-read stories from Fortune:

—Bernie Sanders dominates in donations from suburban women
—Are white Democrats turning on presidential candidates due to Latino outreach?
2020 candidate Tom Steyer is a billionaire, but not that kind of billionaire
—The 2020 tax brackets are out. Here’s what you need to know
—More companies are openly supporting abortion rights
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