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Did The 2nd Round Of Democratic Presidential Debates Serve Voters?


The debates between the Democratic presidential contenders were always going to be dramatic, and from the start, it took on the feel of a sporting event or reality show.


UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: Happening now in downtown Detroit, the candidates facing off for a second night in Michigan. Donald Trump won this battleground state by fewer than 11,000 votes, and the Democrats want it back.

CORNISH: The debate featured 20 candidates spread over two nights and took over five hours of airtime. Watching it all, NPR political editor Domenico Montanaro and NPR's TV critic Eric Deggans.

ERIC DEGGANS, BYLINE: So, Domenico, I was watching it on television...


DEGGANS: But you were actually in Detroit.

MONTANARO: Right. And it was, like - you know, it's a scene.


JAKE TAPPER: An enthusiastic audience at the historic Fox Theatre in downtown...

MONTANARO: And then you've got this big, dramatic, sweeping music and introductions.


DON LEMON: From Delaware, former vice president Joe Biden.


MONTANARO: And I have to say, as somebody who's watched a lot of sports, it felt like this was so hyped. It was hyped in the way that you see a sports, you know, pregame show...


DEE DEE BRIDGEWATER: (Singing) Oh, say can you see...

MONTANARO: And they're really pushing narratives about these candidates.


UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: Tonight, a critical rematch - former vice president Joe Biden aiming to reclaim his momentum. Senator Kamala Harris not backing down after clashing with Biden over race.

MONTANARO: If you listen to that, you'd thought it'd be, like, some knock-down, drag-out cage match. And then you realize these aren't gladiators or athletes in their prime; they're just talking about wonky stuff like health care...

DEGGANS: (Laughter).

MONTANARO: ...And income inequality.

DEGGANS: Yeah. And this is not a new criticism for CNN. They're always facing the balance between presenting the framework for a good debate and also creating great television.


DEGGANS: Now, I remember a 2017 profile of Jeff Zucker, who's the head of CNN that talked about how he was a fan of ESPN and that he's formatted a lot of the shows around the way they argue about sports on ESPN. And I think you saw that in this debate.

MONTANARO: The thing is, you know, when they talk about that stuff on ESPN or "Around The Horn" or some of those kinds of shows, they're also talking about the substance, right...



MONTANARO: ...Of what's actually happening.

DEGGANS: Yeah. I actually think that sometimes sports arguments can be like that, but sometimes, they can be very superficial.


DEGGANS: You know, in the predebate programming that CNN was doing, they had their pundits sort of picking their favorite candidate in the same way that a pundit on ESPN would pick their favorite hitter. And at some point, you want politics to mean more than that.

MONTANARO: Yeah. I mean, you have to be really careful about it because these are issues that actually affect real people's lives; sports is something of an escapism. And, you know, part of what they're trying to do, you know, certainly filtered down to the moderators who play a key role.


TAPPER: Mr. Mayor, just a 15-second point of clarification. Who are you talking about? Who's fearmongering?

BILL DE BLASIO: Certainly, with all due respect to Senator Bennett...

TAPPER: Who on the stage is making promises just to get elected?

I do want to bring in Senator Harris because he just suggested you were not being honest.

MONTANARO: So that's CNN's Jake Tapper there, where he's trying to get a fight going.

DEGGANS: On the one hand, again, the big challenge is to draw out policy differences between these Democrats. But cable news captivates viewers with conflict. As you watch any cable news program, you will see that they use conflict and argument in order to keep you glued to the TV screen. And what we know is that when that happens, often the substance can get lost, and I think that's something they also risk by doing something like this.

MONTANARO: So if they're trying to get ratings, right...


MONTANARO: ...And they're trying to, you know, get these fireworks going, how did they do as far as eyeballs?

DEGGANS: Well, CNN has released its official numbers for Wednesday night - 10.7 million viewers. That is still not as many viewers as NBC saw for its first or second night of debates. Its second night of debates drew 18 million people. You know, NBC was a broadcast network. We're talking about a cable channel. And we've got to be honest, the "Bachelorette" finale was on Tuesday...

MONTANARO: (Laughter).

DEGGANS: ...And that drew 7 million viewers. So you've got to think at least some of them might have switched over to CNN and watched the debate.

MONTANARO: And that's actually scripted reality drama.

DEGGANS: (Laughter) Exactly.

MONTANARO: Well, some of the candidates really did complain about the format. Andrew Yang, in fact, made the point at the very end of his closing remarks. He did it this way.


ANDREW YANG: We're up here with makeup on our faces and our rehearsed attack lines, playing roles in this reality TV show. It's one reason why we elected a reality TV star as our president.

DEGGANS: You know, Rahm Emanuel, the former mayor of Chicago and former Obama chief of staff - he said Republicans fall in line and Democrats fall in love. And so part of falling in love is, what sort of image does this person present? How do I feel about this person when I see them? And I feel like at this point, with so many candidates, that's the main thing on the table right now. So, Domenico, what are we going to see next time? How is the next set of debates going to roll out?

MONTANARO: Well, the funnel is going to get a lot narrower because the DNC, the Democratic National Committee's rules have basically doubled what the needs are for candidates to make the stage. They're going to need 2% in four DNC-approved national or state polls, 130,000 unique donors. So far, only half a dozen or so candidates have met those thresholds, so who gets on that stage is really going to make or break whether people get to know them anymore and whether they've got a chance at this nomination.

DEGGANS: And whether or not the TV show's any good, right (laughter)?


I'm Domenico Montanaro, political editor.

DEGGANS: And I'm Eric Deggans, NPR TV critic.

MONTANARO: Hey, that was fun. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Domenico Montanaro
Domenico Montanaro is NPR's senior political editor/correspondent. Based in Washington, D.C., his work appears on air and online delivering analysis of the political climate in Washington and campaigns. He also helps edit political coverage.
Eric Deggans
Eric Deggans is NPR's first full-time TV critic.