Democrats Just Can’t Muster That Much Enthusiasm for 2016

Maybe it wasn’t a good idea to hide their candidates’ debates behind weekend football?  

Hillary Clinton.
Hillary Clinton.

Photo illustration by Natalie Matthews-Ramo. Hillary Clinton photo by Mark Wilson/Getty Images.

You probably did not know that on Friday night, MSNBC’s Rachel Maddow hosted a presidential candidates’ forum in South Carolina featuring Martin O’Malley, Sen. Bernie Sanders, and Hillary Clinton. I only learned of this a few days beforehand, and it is my job to keep abreast of events such as this. Even if you did know, you probably didn’t watch, because it was on Friday night and you, the gregarious Slate reader-about-town, have all sorts of better things to do.

You also may not be aware that the same three candidates will be debating this Saturday night. Nope, not some dopey forum or cattle call or “day-dinner” type thing: an actual real life pres-ee-dential debate, one of the six sanctioned by the DNC. On Saturday night, just as the college football season is coming down the stretch, and people who aren’t watching college football are out doing things like enjoying themselves with friends and family.

The third Democratic debate will take place on the evening of Dec. 19, also a Saturday. The fourth debate will be on a Sunday during the NFL playoffs, and it will be the final debate before nominating contests begin.

It’s not new information that the Democratic primary debate schedule is both thin and designed to keep the number of human viewers to a minimum. Non-Hillary Clinton candidates like O’Malley and Sanders have been complaining about this, reasonably enough, for months. It’s sparked a public feud among leaders of the DNC—or, more likely, caused a long-existing rage with Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz’s mysteriously lengthy tenure atop the DNC to burst into the open.

Let’s play sucker and try to make a good-faith defense of Wasserman Schultz’s stewardship of the 2016 primary process. Her job is to ensure both a fair primary process and the general election viability of the eventual Democratic nominee. Since Clinton will almost certainly become that nominee, then, Wasserman Schultz’s job is to protect Clinton. That’s why there are only six debates, and why three of the four debates are scheduled for time slots when few will be watching: It prevents Clinton from being nicked up too much by Sanders and O’Malley, or from saying something that may not play well to a more centrist general election audience. To Wasserman Schultz’s credit, the Clinton campaign reportedly requested that there be only four debates, and she tossed in a couple more.

While perhaps made with the party’s best interests in mind, Wasserman Schultz’s theory has not just led to some nasty fighting in the public eye. It’s also made the task of winning the general election more difficult for Clinton.

First of all: Did anyone come away from the first Democratic debate in Las Vegas with the impression that such a setting threatens Clinton? Her debate performance gave her campaign the sort of life that it hadn’t seen since she made her run official in April. The debate allowed her to show off her strongest suit—her sharp comprehension of public policy—to the point that it made some reluctant Democrats excited about supporting this person for whom they were otherwise merely content to pull the lever when required.

Assuming Democrats even bother showing up to vote next November. That’s the bigger problem with the DNC strategy of limited debates and focusing instead on the heresies of the Republican candidates: Democrats aren’t nearly as interested in the election as Republicans are.

A new survey conducted by the Democratic firm Greenberg Quinlan Rosner demonstrates the enthusiasm gap. It polls likely voters across four Senate battleground states—Colorado, Florida, Ohio, and Wisconsin—of which three are also critical presidential battlegrounds. (Wisconsin isn’t a state that Democrats can take for granted, either.) Though GQR finds that demographic changes aid Democrats in these states, it does not find a whole lot of enthusiasm among the new national Democratic coalition of minorities, young people, and unmarried women.

As the Washington Post’s Greg Sargent points out, one question asks voters how interested they are in the November 2016 election on a 1 to 10 scale. Among those who answered 10, the leading demographic affiliations are: seniors, overall “non-RAE” (the Rising American Electorate, meaning unmarried women, young people, and minorities), conservatives, Republicans, and white non-college men. These are, as Sen. Ted Cruz would describe them, “rock-ribbed conservative” demographics. The demographic groups with the fewest “extremely interested” members are overall “RAE,” millennials, and at the very bottom, white millennials, offering further proof that white millennials are the worst people ever created.

You need to have your own people be excited—and not just excited about defeating the opposition, which seems to be what Wasserman Schultz plows most of her resources into doing. Your party’s voters have to be excited about your party’s candidate. And if that candidate’s worth getting excited about, there shouldn’t be any hesitancy about exposing her to the public as much as possible, instead of hiding her few mass public appearances behind weekend football games.

It’s hard to overstate just how much is on the line for the Democratic Party in getting its “Rising American Electorate” numbers up. It was enthusiasm and turnout among these groups that pushed President Obama to two Electoral College victories—and, in turn, reoriented the Democratic Party to cater to these demographics, who then didn’t show up in nearly as strong numbers when Obama wasn’t on the ballot. The Big Question of 2016 Politics, ever since it became clear that Clinton would pursue a strategy tailored to retaining the Obama coalition, has been whether Clinton could turn out these groups in similar numbers. If she can’t, then the 2016 election will look less like the 2008 and 2012 ones and more like the 2010 and 2014 ones. Meaning: the Democratic Party will be almost completely wiped out of American political leadership above the municipal level.

No pressure.