We’re just about four months away from the first Democratic debate of the 2020 cycle set to take place in June. The event will be hosted by NBC News, with Chuck Todd, the NBC Political Director, in the midst of discussions and development of the debate format and determining how the debate will accommodate up to 20 candidates if needed. Todd recently gave an interview to the Daily Beast where he discussed the upcoming debate and how NBC intends to break up the field and broadcast two debates on consecutive nights.
Here’s the Q&A from the Daily Beast interview with Chuck Todd interspersed with some of my analysis on it:
Chuck Todd: Yeah, we’re happy about that. What I’m excited about, frankly, is trying to pull off back-to-back nights. That’s how I’ve always wanted to try to accommodate that many people. I had a bunch of ideas that I wanted to try four years ago of figuring out a way to accommodate these large fields. So that it doesn’t feel like there’s a kids’ table. Now, the DNC wants it evenly split, randomly done, back to back. But it’s still not going to be the exact same event. How can it be? What I’m interested to see is how the candidates on night two react to what happened on night one.
Daily Beast: Will you be moderating?
Chuck Todd: I don’t know. We’re not making those decisions quite yet.
Daily Beast: But will it be the same moderators both nights?
Chuck Todd: For what it’s worth, it will be the same group. Does that mean everyone will ask the exact same questions each night? No. But whatever group of people that’s moderating this event will be the same group of people each night.
Daily Beast: You mentioned the “kids’ table,” which received a lot of derision in 2016—
Chuck Todd: Deservedly so.
Daily Beast: That is something you feel strongly about avoiding? The undercard debate.
Chuck Todd: Look, the question always was, if you were going to do it all on one night, how do you accommodate all of that? The RNC took a debate away from us [in 2016]. We were going to do a debate and I don’t think we would have had to do a kids’ table by then. But I had an idea of trying to create pods of four. You could do four 20-minute debates, each with one subject. So I had this idea where that table will be the debt table and that table will be Syria and you do 20 minutes each.
Daily Beast: You probably can’t win no matter what you do though.
Chuck Todd: No matter what, people are going to feel as if, “They only talked for five minutes total!” Well, there’s 20 people running. We’re doing the best we can.
The interesting part in reading that is how we’ll have 2 entirely separate debates. As Todd says, the moderating team will be the same both nights, but the questions will likely be different. In some ways, that’s unfair since it’ll deny some candidates a chance to speak on issues they feel most strongly about.
In other ways, however, it would also be unfair to ask the same line of questions on both nights since that would give the candidates on night 2 an advantage of being better prepared.
What about candidates interrupting and trying to capitalize on what little time they had? Todd addressed this question in relation to the way Donald Trump asserted himself during the 2016 Republican primary debates.
Daily Beast: Trump was really able to take advantage and take control of the large field in 2016. Do you see something like that happening in 2020 with the Democrats?
Chuck Todd: Here’s the thing. Any debate I’ve ever moderated, somebody tries to be the alpha. No matter whether it’s a two-person debate or a 10-person debate. Trump lived his whole life worried about being the alpha, in every room he ever went into, not just on a debate stage. But that is what is I’m going to be fascinated to watch. It’s that interplay. It’s the candidate who decides to interrupt the moderator first. “Hey, I’m going to get in on that!” That’s their way of saying, look at me, I’m an alpha too. Look, politics ain’t beanbag, and there’s no permission slips. Donald Trump erased that. And in some ways, so did Bernie Sanders. Nobody invited him to run in the Democratic Party. He said, screw you guys, I’m not even a Democrat and I’m going in. There will be an attempt to out-alpha each other. Because at the end of the day, you gravitate toward a leader. I think they’re all mindful that people are going to be watching, not just who do I agree with, who can handle him? Who can handle the elephant in the room?
If you re-watch the debates between Bernie Sanders, a candidate who will be on the stage again in 2020, and Hillary Clinton, it’s clear both candidates weren’t afraid to interrupt each other. They had to fight for the air time and deny the other candidate a chance to speak.
The strategy is analogous to sports where sometimes the best offense is simply to deny your opponent the opportunity to score by keeping the ball out of their hands. If I, as a candidate, can interrupt your answer and steal the focus of the question, you may have lost your chance to score a point on that topic.
For a better example, see the 2012 Vice Presidential Debate between Joe Biden and Paul Ryan. Ryan barely ever finished an answer without Biden breaking in and interrupting Ryan’s thought.
We will see that heavily in a large field where some of the lesser-known candidates will be scraping and fighting for even a few minutes of talk time during a 2-hour broadcast.
The first Democratic primary debate is set for June 2019, though a specific date and time has not been announced.