Democrats and Republicans seized control of the televised presidential debates nearly thirty years ago. Since then, the general election debates have become increasingly dry, in contrast to the parties’ more frequent and freewheeling primary debates. But that began to change this time around.
“During this election, the Republican and Democratic parties have asserted unprecedented control over the primary debates,” explained George Farah, author of No Debate. “And the results have been disastrous.”
On the Democratic side, candidate Martin O’Malley called the primary debate schedule “rigged,” pointing the finger at Democratic National Committee chair Debbie Wasserman-Schultz, who previously served as co-chair of Hillary Clinton’s 2008 presidential campaign.
While Democrats held 25 debates in 2008, Wasserman-Schultz scheduled just six in 2016 (three more were later added), and three of those were on weekends when viewership is lower. Observers pointed out that, as the frontrunner, it was to Clinton’s advantage to hold fewer debates with fewer viewers. “This is totally unprecedented in our party’s history,” said O’Malley, who’s now eyeing the DNC chairmanship.
The position is open following Wasserman-Schultz’s sudden resignation in the wake of Wikileaks publishing internal DNC emails showing the organization’s bias against Bernie Sanders. (Immediately after stepping down, Clinton gave Wasserman-Schultz a top position in her campaign.)
During the primary season, with few Democratic debates scheduled, Sanders considered debating Republicans. Wasserman-Schultz responded by threatening to ban Sanders from Democratic debates if he participated in a non-DNC sanctioned debate.
This election cycle “was the first time a major party has ever threatened to punish a candidate for participating in a primary debate,” wrote Farah.
When Rep. Tulsi Gabbard, a DNC vice chair, objected to Wasserman-Schultz’s “policy of retribution,” as well as her “unilateral decision” to limit debates, the response was swift. Wasserman-Schultz disinvited Gabbard from the first Democratic debate.
Wasserman-Schultz also gave the cold shoulder to smaller organizations, such as local newspapers and civic groups, which had previously sponsored primary debates. Instead, as media watchdog Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting (FAIR) noted:
Eight out of the nine debates were hosted by a subsidiary or joint venture of one of four corporations: Comcast, Viacom, Disney and Time Warner (combined market value $383 billion).
Meanwhile, FAIR observed, the nine Democratic debates didn’t have “a single question about poverty.”
Struggling networks saw the debates, which were sure to be watched by millions, as a needed shot in the arm. Sensing the networks’ desperation, the Republican National Committee made unprecedented demands.
To ensure “a conservative element,” sponsoring networks must partner with right-wing media outlets, the RNC declared. This led, for example, to CNN bringing on conservative radio host Hugh Hewitt as a moderator in all four of the network’s Republican debates.
Fox News was the only network permitted to opt out of this ‘chaperone system.’ “We were not comfortable with [it],” said a Fox executive.
Despite the chaperone system, Republican candidates faced forceful questioning at a CNBC-sponsored debate. The RNC responded by banning CNBC and its parent company, NBC, from sponsoring future Republican debates.
This wasn’t NBC’s first run-in with the RNC. In 2013, the RNC voted to ban both NBC and CNN from hosting Republican debates if they aired planned TV projects about Clinton. Both networks dropped them, but claimed it was unrelated to the RNC request.
The RNC’s unprecedented demands on the networks may have inspired candidates, who got in on the act.
“I’m protesting the @UnionLeader from having anything to do w/ ABC debate,” Donald Trump tweeted on Jan. 9. The next day ABC announced it was dropping the New Hampshire newspaper as a debate co-sponsor.