Did you catch the latest installment in the Democratic Presidential Debates? I didn’t. Netflix has spoiled me for watching any series that I can’t binge watch, plus I am allowed to drop out anywhere along the way when I lose interest.
When the first debates were held last June, there was interest a-plenty, even with an unwieldy field of candidates (a couple of dozen, give or take). Even the poorer players got to strut and fret their hour upon the stage, although it might have been reduced to a quarter of that in some cases.
As the debates and the campaigns dragged on, candidates started falling away like bad card players at a poker tournament. Remember Richard Ojeda, who withdrew before the first debate? Me neither. Then there were the ones who lasted thought the first debate, but never qualified to participate. If you can match the last names (Gravel, Messam, Moulton, Sestak) with the correct first name (Joe, Mike, Seth, Wayne), you are probably the biggest political nerd in your neck of the woods.
There were the one night stand candidates (Bullock and Swalwell), plus a trio of one time encores (Gillibrand, Hickenlooper, and Inslee) who took two shots at the big time before dropping out before being told not to come back. Tim Ryan, Billde Blasio, and Marianne Williamson also appeared twice, but continued their campaigns long enough to be held back by the debate bouncer, who could see that their names weren’t on the list.
Beto O’Rourke made four debates before withdrawing, while Kamala Harris chalked up five. They both withdrew from the race before not qualifying for the next debate, showing that they were both brought up right.
If Cory Booker had dropped out just a little bit sooner, he could have made this category a trio. But he continued his campaign past the sixth debate, for which he did not quality, proving himself to be one of those folks that have to see the carriage turn into a pumpkin before realizing it’s time to go. But not to worry, Cory. I’m sure Andrew Yang is coming right behind you.
Then there are the ones still standing, kind of, who I think of as the “What the hell are you thinking?” folks. We have John Delaney, Deval Patrick, Michael Bennet (not to be confused with Michael Bennett), and Tulsi Gabbard (not to be confused with—oh, never mind).
Tom Steyer didn’t qualify for the first couple of debates after he entered the race; it took a minute before the money he’s spending kicked in to get him in the fourth one. Then there are the perfect attendance kids—Biden, Buttigieg, Klobucher, Sanders, and Warren. Obviously the top of the class.
If viewership is any indicator, the first debate (remember it was shown on two consecutive nights) drew the biggest audience at roughly 26 million. The second debate (also a two parter) logged in less than half of that. By the time of last month’s debate (the sixth), the numbers are down to just over 6 million. Any regular television show would be canceled with ratings results like that, but the DNC has committed itself to five more of these—three of them next month.
Clearly, it’s not that the viewers stopped watching once they made up their minds. There’s no “I quit watching the debates because I know I’m voting for whomever.” According to the latest Des Moines Register poll, only 40% of likely Iowa caucus participants have made up their minds, with over half undecided or subject to changing their minds.
So if the purpose of these debates is like some kind of unending freshman mixer designed to help voters determine who they will support, it ain’t a-working. It’s more like The Poseidon Adventure, being held hostage in a movie where a bunch of movie stars are trying to get to the bottom of an upside-down ship, escaping certain death only if they’re not behind Shelley Winters when she gets stuck.
But look on the bright side. If after all these months, anyone who hasn’t fallen in love with any of the candidates and is finding that familiarity can indeed breed something close to contempt, there’s still Michael Bloomberg. He’s the guy with all those chips at the poker table, drawing to an inside straight. Not necessarily because it’s the smart thing, but just because he can.