Much has been made of the fact that the Democrats’ third presidential debate will only be one night, as just 10 candidates qualified from a much larger field of contenders.
That will make the Houston event different in its dynamics, but the challenge for producers remain the same: It’s still a large number of people sharing a debate stage. Viewers will have an easier time in comparing the field of top contenders, but there will be much focus on whether the event produces the kind of compelling moments that changes the direction of the race.
One industry vet said that a problem with the first two debates was that NBC News and CNN were so concerned with time constraints that they had the feel of speed dating, leaving little room for context before moving on to the next candidate or topic.
“Each debate brings everything into sharper focus as the field narrows. It’s easier to pay attention and follow what is going on,” said Alan Schroeder, author of Presidential Debates: Risky Business on the Campaign Trail.
That said, he cautions that “the ’10 people on the stage’ aspect of this is going to make it feel like the previous debates.”
The candidates on the stage will be former Vice President Joseph Biden, Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-MA), Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT), Sen. Kamala Harris (D-CA), South Bend, IN, Mayor Pete Buttigieg, former Rep. Beto O’Rourke, Sen. Cory Booker (D-NJ), former Health and Human Services Secretary Julian Castro, Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D-N) and entrepreneur Andrew Yang.
ABC News and Univision are trying to distinguish the Houston debate from previous ones. They are adding more time to the clock this time around, giving each candidate 15 more seconds to respond in their answers and rebuttals. That works out to one minute, 15 seconds for answers and 45 seconds for rebuttals.
Slotted for 8-11 p.m. ET, the networks also are allocating three hours, after previous events went overtime anyway.
The moderators for the event will be ABC World News Tonight anchor David Muir, ABC News chief anchor George Stephanopoulos, Univision anchor Jorge Ramos and ABC News correspondent Linsey Davis.
Muir gave a first look at the debate stage on Tuesday, featuring a heavy use of blue and red and large renderings of the ABC News logo and the motto, “Your Voice Your Vote.”
The networks also are playing up the fact that Biden and Warren will be sharing the stage for the first time — and the focus inevitably will be on whether any differences stir some friction. Biden, representing the more moderate wing of the party, will be flanked by Warren and Sanders, who are offering a set of bold progressive policy prescriptions that have captivated the left.
The debate also could be an opportunity for other candidates to break through.
Buttigieg, for instance, already told ABC News that he wants to present a contrast — “to explain why my plans, and not just my style, are simply different from the other candidates.”
Yang, the long shot in the race, already is promising “something big,” after The Daily Show host Trevor Noah noted some of the stunts that the candidate has taken to draw attention.
Yang also has come to the previous debates wearing no tie, and he could have an advantage in being the only non-politician on the stage and “the most different from all the rest,” Schroeder said.
The first debate, aired on NBC News. MSNBC and Telemundo in June, drew 15.3 million on Night 1 and 18.2 million on Night 2. That fell to 8.7 million and 10.7 million, respectively, for CNN’s July event.
Schroeder says those numbers still are impressive — a good sign for the ABC/Univision audience.
“Sometimes people go into debates with expectations that are too high,” he said. “We always want the debate to produce that clarifying moment where it is obvious who should be the nominee. But those moments are few and far between.”
Some debate moments also can be warning signs for campaign troubles ahead. That was in the case in an October 2007, debate, when some of Hillary Clinton’s rivals and many in the media pounced on her difficult to understand answer on whether undocumented immigrants should get New York driver’s licenses.
Oddly enough, as much as will be made about the impact of having just one night of debate, it doesn’t mean that it’s the end of two-night events this cycle.
That’s likely to happen for the fourth event, to be held sometime in October and with the news outlet sponsor yet to be announced.
Philanthropist Tom Steyer, who failed to make tonight’s third debate, appears to have qualified for the fourth, and other candidates might do so as well. Once more than 10 candidates qualify, that triggers the need for a two-night debate, per Democratic National Committee rules.
So that again would force whatever network sponsors the fourth debate to split the event into two nights, with candidates assigned by random drawing. In other words, there are more challenges ahead for producers.
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