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Why are there so many debates?

Sunday's showdown between Joe Biden and Bernie Sanders was the 11th Democratic debate this primary season

ATLANTA — ATLANTA – The eleventh debate between Democratic candidates for President is in the books, and with one more debate scheduled, some are wondering why we need so many.

Sunday night’s debate between Joe Biden and Bernie Sanders took place without a live audience due to the coronavirus.

Debates have been part of the American political process since before there were radios or televisions to broadcast them.  Prior to his days in the White House, Honest Abe Lincoln debated his opponent for the U.S. Senate seven times in various places around the state of Illinois.

Prior to the beginning of the primary season, the Democratic Party scheduled a dozen debates, six in 2019 and six in 2020. 

“Some people might say we’ve overdone it,” says University of Georgia Political Science Professor Charles Bullock. “We have so many of them now.”

Let’s explore why the Democratic candidates are going at it so often during the primary season.

The first Democratic debate last June involved 20 candidates. The early exchanges provided information for voters and the candidates themselves.

“If someone has a lackluster performance, they can’t raise any money from it,” said Emory Political Science Professor Audra Gillespie. “That signals they don’t have the base of support to continue.”

Candidates lacking momentum have dropped from the race.

As the crowd has thinned, it’s provided more time on the debate stage for those who remain.

The timing of the more recent debates has been critical.

“There’s one just before Iowa and just before New Hampshire,” says Bullock. “It’s a chance for candidates to strut their stuff and more recently a chance to strut their stuff when constituents are about to vote.”

There will be even more debates once the parties have picked their final candidates and we inch closer to the November general election.

The dozen debates among Democratic candidates is not unprecedented. The Republican candidates for President met 12 times during the primary season in 2016.


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