Tonight, at 9 p.m. on NBC, Hillary Clinton and Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders will square off in a primetime debate between the two leading contenders for the Democratic nomination for President.
Will you be watching? If so, you might not have much company.
The ratings for the Democratic presidential candidate debates have, well, suffered by comparison to the ratings for the Republican contests. The most recent Democratic debate, on ABC in December, attracted 6.7 million viewers. The Republican debate in December on CNN, in contrast, got 18 million viewers, and earlier debates among the GOP field pulled in 25 million and 24 million viewers. The most recent Republican debate, earlier this week on the Fox Business Network, was watched by 11 million Americans.
Why are the Democratic debates getting trounced? Some simply attribute it to the Donald Trump factor, reasoning that his supporters watch the debates because they like what he has to say, his detractors watch hoping he puts his foot in his mouth, and non-political people watch because he’s entertaining. Others think the Republican debates simply have more uncertainty and drama than the Democratic contests, where it was widely believed that the debates are just a formality on Hillary Clinton’s inevitable march to the nomination.
Still others (like the Sanders campaign) note that the Democratic debates have been scheduled on Saturday nights, traditionally not a heavy TV-watching period, and argue the Democratic National Committee and the Clinton campaign may have made those arrangements specifically to keep people from hearing what Bernie Sanders has to say. It is weird that the debates have been set for dates and times that aren’t exactly prime viewing periods, and it seems at least plausible that the Clinton campaign’s ultra-cautious, play-it-safe approach was a factor in the scheduling. If so, that’s kind of strange, when you think about it. Either the Clinton people think Hillary can’t out-debate a self-declared Socialist, or — perhaps more likely — they think the voters in Democratic primaries and caucuses are so liberal that Sander’s socialist positions will be attractive if the likely primary voters just find out what he is saying.
If that’s the Clinton camp’s strategy, is it working? It’s not entirely clear. Sanders apparently has closed the gap in Iowa and is doing well in New Hampshire, although Clinton has increased her lead in national polls. But the national polls really don’t mean a lot when it comes to primaries and caucuses, and if Sanders can pull upsets in Iowa and New Hampshire, it’s not hard to imagine Clinton’s big national lead, and the sense of inevitability that her supporters have tried to project, melting away in favor of the new guy. In fact, the New York Times is reporting that some members of the Clinton campaign — including Bill Clinton — think it was a mistake to not come out swinging against Sanders at the outset. Part of a more aggressive approach, of course, would have meant holding debates at times when people might actually be inclined to tune in.
So, will you be watching tonight, or not? After all, a new episode of Downton Abbey is airing on PBS.