Have the Democratic Debates Even Mattered?

Biden was the frontrunner before the debates and he’s the frontrunner now.

The last Democratic primary debate before Iowa caucus goers have their say takes place tonight. Since the process started in June, there have been six debates. The field has narrowed from 28 candidates to 12—and the audience for these affairs has dwindled from 27 million live and streaming viewers to just 8 million in November. 

With just three weeks to go before the caucus, what have we learned? And what effect have the debates had, if any?

Polls are usually a lagging indicator of voter sentiment, but the only statistically significant metric we have to measure likely voters. Joe Biden was the obvious frontrunner before the first debate. Although his numbers were starting to edge downward from a high of 41 percent and settling into the low 30s, he was still 15 points ahead of his closest rival, Bernie Sanders. In the month before the debate, Elizabeth Warren had surged into a solid third place with 12 percent. Harris and Buttigieg were clumped together in fourth place with about 7 percent support. 

Six months later? The race looks remarkably the same in national polls. Joe Biden is at 29.3 percent and Bernie Sanders is nine points behind in second place.  Warren is at 14.8 percent and Buttigieg is at 7.5 percent. 

This, of course, doesn’t tell the whole story. Pollster Kristen Soltis Anderson notes that “the debates have had relatively minor impact on the polls, with the exception of the rise and fall of Kamala Harris.” Harris surged into second place two weeks after the first debate, boosted temporarily by her sparring with Joe Biden, but she returned to fourth place before the second debate. “The [debate] effect was incredibly short lived,” notes Anderson. 

Another metric is fundraising. In the 24 hours after a debate, several candidates boasted that their fundraising had spiked—proving that their debate performance was winning over the most enthusiastic members of the Democratic base, right? Harris, after all, raised a whopping $2 million and picked up more than 36,000 new donors in the 24 hours after that first debate. After the fourth debate in which Washington Post,USA Today and CNN all declared her a winner for taking on Warren’s progressive policies, Amy Klobuchar raised $1.1 million, her best day in online fundraising according to her campaign and nearly 25 percent of her quarterly haul.

On the other hand, Andrew Yang picked up 18,000 new donors on November 30—not because of a debate but because of a tweet storm.  

At the end of the third quarter (July-September), the overall contribution numbers looked like this: Steyer at $50 million (almost all of which was his own money), Sanders at $28 million, Warren at $25 million, Buttigieg at $19 million, and Biden at $16 million. With the exception of Biden, these numbers look a lot like the poll numbers. And there’s certainly nothing to show that the post-debate surge in fundraising that some candidates experienced contributed noticeably to their overall hauls, which means that those 24-boosts may often reflect a campaign prioritizing digital advertising in that time period rather than an increase in actual support.

This primary season is unusual not just for the sheer number of candidates—a half-dozen more even than the 2016 GOP primary—but for candidates who are deep-pocketed enough not to care about the debates in the first place. 

The story of Tom Steyer and Mike Bloomberg will fascinate political scientists for years to come: two self-funding billionaires, one with three debate performances and one with none. Steyer, who took small donations solely for the purpose of meeting the DNC debate requirements, has spent $106 million on advertising and will appear on tonight’s debate stage. Bloomberg, who has eschewed donors altogether, has spent $211 million and isn’t going to be on stage for a single debate. Nationally, Bloomberg is averaging 5.8 percent with one poll putting him at 11 percent and Steyer is at 2.2 percent with a single poll high of 4 percent. 

They are also showing how money can mean more than debates, using targeted spending to boost themselves strategically. Specifically, Steyer has spent $22 million in South Carolina and Nevada while Bloomberg has spent $21 million in states like California. And it shows. Steyer is polling at 8.3 percent in South Carolina (and as high as 15 points in the latest Fox poll) compared with Bloomberg’s 2.5. But in California, Bloomberg is averaging 3 percent while Steyer is just over 1).

So why haven’t the debates moved the numbers this time around? Anderson points to two factors: First, she notes that “there have not been any massive break-out or flame-out moments among key frontrunners” despite some of Biden’s lackluster performances in the eyes of pundits. And “the second factor could be the enormously crowded initial field and a Democratic voter base that has been waiting for the field to narrow before truly tuning in,” she hypothesizes.

But even if the effects don’t show up in polling or fundraising, perhaps there have been less tangible results for the Democratic party as a whole. New York Times and CNN contributor Wajahat Ali argues that the debates have meant that voters “are also seeing the diversity of the modern Democratic Party.” Ali told me “those generational, cultural and class distinctions and dimensions of the Democratic Party are all at play and visible” each night the candidates take the stage and on a policy level the “more established and traditional Democratic candidates must contend with the progressive wing and policies … they can no longer be discounted.” This, in turn, has energized the Democratic base, which in the end, has helped Biden because as the “presumptive nominee … he has had to earn it,” says Ali.

And there have been larger policy implications as well. “The biggest impact has been to expose the flaws in the Medicare for All plans of some of the candidates,” said Joe Lockhart, former Clinton press secretary and Democratic campaign veteran, “better for that to happen in the primaries, than in the general.”

If the biggest results of the debates have been to benefit the frontrunner and get the Medicare for All debate out of the way, perhaps the candidates have only themselves to blame. Tim Miller, communications director to Jeb Bush in the 2016 primary and former senior adviser to the anti-Trump Our Principles PAC, argues that perhaps they have failed to capitalize on the debates. “I’m convinced all the candidates missed an opportunity to take a Gingrich-in-2012 style strategy where they demonstrated a shadow debate against the incumbent to rally the base to their side,” referring to Gingrich’s Performer of the Year debate tactics. Miller added, “given the loathing of Trump among the Democratic base this seems to me like it could’ve been far more effective than the hours that have been spent nitpicking each other over health care.”

Photograph of the Democratic candidates at the September 2019 debate in Texas by Justin Sullivan/Getty Images.