An update on that Yang debate qualification issue, thoughts on the framing of last night’s debate questions, who talked the most last night, key moments from the debate, and what’s happening at tonight’s debate.
An update on that Yang debate qualification issue
Before we get into debate stuff, here’s an update on Yang’s qualification for the September and October debates. Right after I hit the publish button on yesterday’s show, I saw the news that the DNC had rejected one of the four polls Yang was relying on for his math in terms of qualifying for those later debates.
That means he only has three polls at 2 percent or higher, and therefore does not yet qualify for the September and October debates.
To be clear, YES, Yang will be on stage TONIGHT, and it’s also very likely he will get a fourth qualifying poll for September pretty soon anyway, but one of the core polls he was counting on got yanked by the DNC.
This news did NOT affect Booker, since he wasn’t relying on that poll for his qualification, and in fact has more than four qualifying polls anyway.
Here’s what the DNC wrote in an email to candidates:
“On July 11[th], NBC and the Wall Street Journal released the results of a national survey that included a candidate support question for the 2020 Democratic presidential primary. Eight days later, on July 19[th], NBC, in partnership with SurveyMonkey, released the results of another national survey with a candidate support question. A particularly important rule in our debate framework is the requirement that candidates' initial qualifying polls be conducted by different sponsors, or if by the same sponsor, in different geographies.”
The Yang campaign responded by saying that the first poll, since it was co-sponsored by the Wall Street Journal, which is itself a different qualified polling organization than NBC, means that those are two separate polls, despite NBC participating in both. Well, the DNC disagrees, and the DNC gets to settle this, so that’s that.
The main point this raises is that the DNC has sometimes been cagey about saying whether a given poll counts or not—like, this exact question, about this specific poll, had been raised by journalists multiple times, with no comment from the DNC.
It took a candidate announcing that he had succeeded for the DNC to actually stake out its position. If I may offer a suggestion to the DNC: Upon the release of a new poll, state whether or not it counts toward qualification. It’s just that simple, and it would save us a lot of headaches.
Thoughts on the framing of last night’s debate questions
Last night, the first set of ten Democratic candidates gathered in Detroit for CNN’s debate. As I mentioned yesterday, the key thing to watch for was conflict. And whoa, was there conflict.
Throughout the night, this debate differed from what we saw in June in key ways. But for this first segment, I want to get into the issue of FRAMING. In other words, how the moderators framed questions and set up conflict in order to drive the discussion. I was grappling with this all night, actually. It struck me that there was a much better mix of candidates’ ability to actually speak—the talking time mix seemed far better, and we’ll get to that in the next segment—but at the same time, the moderators kept setting up arguments by framing questions in bizarre ways, trying to get a rise out of people.
Right after the debate, I mentioned this, and listener Ben Silver chimed in on Twitter with a very helpful statement. He wrote:
“It's worth differentiating between the Format (good) and the wild impulse of the moderators to instigate fights between candidates and regurgitating GOP talking points rather than [focusing] on actual issues (bad).”
What he’s getting at there is what I needed to make sense of this debate. The moderators did a good job—or at least, a BETTER job than the June debate moderators—at enforcing rules and calling on a variety of people to talk. That’s the format. And the moderators’ ability to grab a candidate and bring them into the conversation was a good thing overall, because it was inclusive. It was bewildering at times, when candidates would be plopped into the middle of a fight they hadn’t picked, and also the 60-second time limits eliminated a lot of substantive debate, but still, you’ve gotta make some concessions to the fact that there are 10 people onstage, and they all deserve some amount of attention. In my opinion, the fact that the moderators used their rapid-fire format, jumping to different candidates regularly was fair to the lower-polling candidates, even though it had costs for the overall quality of the discussion. You may disagree, and that’s fine, but anyway, let’s move on.
Okay, so that’s the format. But then there’s the frame. And that’s what had so many people—myself included—so very annoyed. From the very beginning, the moderators framed questions to stoke conflict or repeat what are literally Republican talking points about Democratic policy. Here’s what Jake Tapper said in his very first question:
“Let's start the debate with the number-one issue for Democratic voters, health care. And Senator Sanders, let's start with you. You support Medicare for All, which would eventually take private health insurance away from more than 150 million Americans, in exchange for government-sponsored health care for everyone.
Congressman Delaney just referred to it as bad policy. And previously, he has called the idea "political suicide that will just get President Trump re-elected." What do you say to Congressman Delaney?”
And, of course, Sanders replied simply, “You’re wrong.” Of course, he had more to say, but that was his core response, and after sleeping on it, it’s obvious why he would respond that way. What “you’re wrong” means here is a reference both to what Sanders thinks about Delaney’s comments, but also that Tapper’s framing of the question in terms of taking health care away is the wrong way to think about this issue.
So Sanders went on to re-frame, by talking about the systemic problems of the American health care system as the actual problem. By pointing that out, he was saying, let’s not talk about taking away private health care—let’s talk about what’s broken and whether my method for fixing it is viable. This is an example of framing and re-framing—if the moderator asks something that is framed in a way you disagree with, you just re-frame it in terms that are more favorable to either your position or the debate in general.
But the CNN anchors continued this pattern throughout the night. Much later in this same section, here’s another way Tapper framed a question:
“I want to bring in Mayor Buttigieg. On the topic of whether or not the middle class should pay higher taxes in exchange for guaranteed health care and the elimination of insurance premiums, how do you respond, Mayor?”
So Buttigieg, rightly, re-framed the question to be about what the discussion actually WAS on stage, which was Medicare for All versus a public option. But he was quickly interrupted and then Tapper jumped in again with this:
“Just 15 seconds on the clarification. You are willing to raise taxes on middle-class Americans in order to have universal coverage with the disappearance of insurance premiums, yes or no?”
So Tapper here has seized on two key complaints about the various Democratic proposals around health care—the issues of how it affects private health insurance plans, plus how to pay for it—and framed them in a way that, well, if nothing else, got people talking. The candidates DO need to be prepared to deal with this stuff in the general election, though I think many viewers were essentially asking, um, how come we’re trying to make the case NOW to Republicans during the DEMOCRATIC PRIMARY when the stage is full of Democrats? You know?
And then there was yet another common frame, which was to ask a candidate about somebody else on stage who may or may not have actually attacked them. For instance, here’s Tapper later on in the same section:
“I want to bring in Marianne Williamson. Ms. Williamson, how do you respond to the criticism from Senator Warren that you're not willing to fight for Medicare for All?”
Wait, what? Which criticism is that? When was it made? Give us a citation here, Tapper. Oh, I found it. Here’s what he’s referring to, and it has nothing to do with Williamson. Reading from Tapper earlier when he was questioning Klobuchar:
“Senator Warren at the beginning of the night said that Democrats cannot … win the White House with small ideas and spinelessness. In the last debate, she said the politicians who are not supporting Medicare for All simply lack the will to fight for it.”
Anyway, this is how Williamson responded:
“I don't know if Senator Warren said that about me specifically. I admire very much what Senator Warren has said and what Bernie has said.”
She did go on longer, but that’s the core point—she was saying, hey Jake, that frame doesn’t make any sense. I’m not aware of this allegation you’re making. And, to be frank, I think Tapper knew he was just trying to pick a fight here. That’s definitely what CNN’s strategy was, but this framing thing was irresponsible because it promoted conflict at the expense of dialogue. Not good, CNN.
And the final frame that bothered me was, how do I put this delicately, the Total BS Frame. Here’s how moderator Dana Bash pivoted the discussion to immigration:
“Mayor Buttigieg, you're in favor of getting rid of the law that makes it a crime to come across the U.S. border illegally. Why won't that just encourage more illegal immigration?”
So this is a willful misrepresentation of a topic that we’ve discussed on this podcast at great length and that the candidates got into on the first night of the June debates. It has to do with Julián Castro’s plan to get rid of Section 1325 of federal criminal code. What that means is that it would change the nature of the crime of illegal border crossing from being a criminal offense to being a civil offense—which is exactly what it was until 1929. Still a crime, just dealt with differently in the court system. Bash must understand that, because it was already discussed in the previous debate. Yet the frame was not about changing the type of crime that an illegal border crossing would be. No. The frame was, and I quote, “you're in favor of getting rid of the law that makes it a crime to come across the U.S. border illegally.” That’s not Buttigieg’s position at all, and Bash knows it. Tapper knows it. Everybody knows it. Buttigieg began his response by pointing this out: “When I am president, illegally crossing the border will still be illegal. We can argue over the finer points of which parts of this ought to be handled by civil law and which parts ought to be handled by criminal law. But we've got a crisis on our hands.”
So, let’s wrap up this segment and move on. But the important thing to take away here is that part of why we saw so much conflict last night was because of the way the questions were framed. At times the framing was dishonest. At other times it was designed simply to provoke conflict, which, let’s face it, is a pretty reasonable thing when you’re having, you know, a debate. But watch for this again tonight, and try to notice how the moderators intentionally frame questions in a way that attempts to provoke the candidates. The frame can provoke debate without being DISHONEST. And I sincerely hope that CNN does a little adjusting to remove the dishonesty.
Who talked the most last night
As in June, several media organizations actually tallied up the amount of time that each candidate spoke while on-stage. In June, there were radical disparities. For instance, on the second night of June’s debate, Biden got 13.6 minutes while Yang got just 3 minutes. That’s just plain unfair. Like, that’s way outta whack.
So the format of last night’s debate included WAY more jumping around, with the moderators clearly trying to bring more candidates into each part of the debate, whether they wanted it or not. But did it work? Well, in a word, yes. And it also had the side effect of cutting off a ton of candidates who otherwise would have run away with these very long, and thus inequitable, discussions, pulling more time to themselves.
The equity of time distribution was much better, though certainly not perfect. But we didn’t see ANY examples last night of the Yang/Biden problem, where one candidate got more than four times the amount of speaking time of another.
Here’s the breakdown, from The Washington Post. Note that different media organizations had slightly different numbers, but this one seemed as good as any. Okay, Warren and Sanders spoke the most, each with more than 17 minutes. Buttigieg was next at more than 14 minutes. Then everybody else was roughly 9 minutes to 11 minutes.
Technically, Hickenlooper spoke the least, with 8.8 minutes. That means, comparing the highest speaker—Warren, at 17.9 minutes—with the lowest, Hickenlooper, Warren did have double the time of the lowest candidate.
But in the previous set of debates, Biden had quadruple-and-a-half the time of the lowest candidate. So, at least on the first night, this debate format gave a better mix of time to candidates than what we saw in June.
Key moments from the debate
One of the fun things about doing a debate wrap-up show is that you get to play some clips. And last night’s debate was FULL of good moments, so let’s just play a few to remember key moments in the debate.
First up, Senator Elizabeth Warren had many big moments, but I’m going to pick out just two. The first one came in the context of that thing about Delaney saying that Medicare for All is “political suicide.” Here is part of Warren’s response:
And here’s the second Warren clip, complete with the Jake Tapper’s framing right up front. Listen in:
Next up, Senator Bernie Sanders had a bunch of fiery exchanges. Here’s one that involved Representative Tim Ryan. Tapper speaks first, then Sanders, then Ryan jumps in. Listen in.
Incidentally, this was apparently a rehearsed line, as the Sanders campaign immediately sent out an email after he said it, encouraging supporters to get a sticker reading “I wrote the damn bill” in exchange for a contribution. Quite similar to the Harris thing with her busing-related tee-shirt.
Okay, next up, Mayor Pete Buttigieg. This one actually came just after Williamson’s response to Tapper asking about whether she would fight for Medicare for All. After Williamson’s answer, Buttigieg jumped in. Listen in:
Next, here’s Representative Tim Ryan. Again, notice the framing from Dana Bash, putting him in opposition to Sanders, when, really, they actually agree on this topic overall, and Ryan takes pains to point that out. Listen in:
And finally, author Marianne Williamson on the Flint water crisis. This one is already kind of a meme, known as the “dark psychic force” clip. Dana Bash speaks first, after Klobuchar had just finished her remarks. Listen in:
What’s happening at tonight’s debate
Okay, last up today, let’s briefly talk about TONIGHT. The second night of the debate will again air on CNN at 8pm Eastern time, using the various CNN apps and the CNN website.
Also, although the event was and technically remains a two-hour event, it actually ran two hours and forty-three minutes last night, so…I guess we expect that to happen again? So plan your snacks and bathroom breaks accordingly.
Okay, that’s the technical stuff. On the Debate Bingo side, do make sure you’re following the Twitter account @ElectionPodcast if you want the official rulings on Bingo stuff. Last night, thanks to help from my wife Rochelle, I managed to actually notice when each square was filled in, and tweet about it there. So if you’re playing Debate Bingo, you want to follow that account on Twitter to help make sure you’ve got your squares right. And by the way, tomorrow or the next day on the show, I will do a roundup on the Bingo cards, as their own topic. That’s an analysis thing, not a promo thing.
And, last, CONTENT. Tonight is Biden night. Tonight is “all the candidates of color” night. Tonight we now understand the CNN format and will see whether candidates make use of it. I didn’t see CNN explicitly reducing anyone’s time on Night One, so I really wonder whether on Night Two any candidates will start pushing hard to try to see whether CNN will blink. Also, expect everybody to attack Biden, whether that is via the moderators’ questions themselves, or the actual candidates mixing it up. And expect him to hit back hard, because he’s been heads-down on debate prep.
One final-final note, I have linked to a few wrap-ups of the debate in case you want to read somebody else’s coherent thoughts on what went down. Check out the last links in the show notes.
- Election Ride Home Primary Debate BINGO!
- Yang campaign slams DNC over poll qualification criteria for September debate (The Hill)
- Ben Silver tweet re format vs. framing (Twitter/Ben Silver)
- Democratic debate transcript: July 30, 2019 (NBC News)
- Who talked the most during the first night of the second Democratic debate (WaPo)
- The Wildest Moments From the Second Democratic Debate, Night One (NY Mag)
- Who Is John Delaney and Why Did He Talk So Much in the Debate? (NY Mag)
- What Went Down In The Second Democratic Debate (FiveThirtyEight)
- Was Joe Biden Really the Winner of Tuesday’s Debate? (NY Mag)