The Democratic debate on Tuesday night has all of the ingredients of the most consequential one yet this cycle: Bernie Sanders, now the front-runner, likely will be the main target of rivals’ attacks.
Michael Bloomberg, blanketing the airwaves with his campaign commercials, is looking for a reset after last week’s debate fumble.
And Joe Biden, leading in the polls for much the campaign season, desperately needs a great night to ensure a victory in the South Carolina primary on Saturday to keep his presidential bid alive.
Just as last week’s Las Vegas debate was full of the type of drama that makes for some must-watch TV moments, the Charleston, SC, event could very well do the same. CBS News, sponsoring the debate with the Congressional Black Caucus Institute, may not draw the record audience of last week’s debate, but it could still deliver a ratings spike.
“Since this is the last debate before Super Tuesday, and with the next debate three weeks in the offing, the Charleston event has the potential to be a significant draw for millions of undecided Democratic voters who will go to the polls between now and mid-March,” Alan Schroeder, author of Presidential Debates: Risky Business on the Campaign Trail, said via email. “It’s really their last chance to comparison shop.”
Nearly 20 million people watched the last debate last week on NBC and MSNBC, setting an unexpected ratings record. The uptick may have been due to the debut of Bloomberg on the stage, after having spent more than $300 million on TV and radio ads. But it also probably had to do with timing, as the contours of the race are becoming clearer and voters are starting to focus on their upcoming primaries.
Schroeder said that with no new faces on the stage, he is not sure that the debate will be the ratings blockbuster of Las Vegas. But that there will be interest in seeing how Sanders handles his status as a front-runner.
The potential for significant ratings is good news for CBS News, which is hosting its first debate this cycle. As has been the case with other networks who have hosted events, the network is trying to make the most of the exposure, enlisting not just a single moderator but a team. CBS Evening News anchor Norah O’Donnell and CBS This Morning co-host Gayle King will take the lead, with Margaret Brennan, Major Garrett and Bill Whitaker also asking questions.
Given the stakes involved for the candidates, the moderators likely will face some feisty moments that threaten to devolve into drawn-out fights.
That’s a challenge, as moderators have to know when to let arguments play out and when to step in, said Mark Lukasiewicz, dean of The Lawrence Herbert School of Communication at Hofstra University and former senior vice president of specials for NBC News.
“It is a very difficult thing. The truth is there is a part of every debate that is about creating a show: moments of tension and moments of disagreement, when the candidates have their fingers pointed at each other, that makes for great television,” he said.
That said, viewers notice when things get out of control.
“You want a feisty debate, but you also want to keep order and not have it descend into a food fight,” he said.
A signature moment of last week’s debate came when Elizabeth Warren confronted Bloomberg over the issue of non-disclosure agreements that former Bloomberg employees signed to settle complaints they made against him. Such a moment, when one candidate asks another candidate a question, is “wonderful” for a debate, Lukasiewicz said, especially if it creates substantive exchanges.
But tense moments also can get out of hand, as when Pete Buttigieg and Amy Klobuchar sparred and talked over one another at one moment last week and the moderators had to call a halt.
Another challenge is to keep a debate moving on a stage that will still be crowded with candidates. Keeping that kind of continuity, Lukasiewicz said, is even more difficult with multiple moderators. He’s not crazy about the trend. As networks have looked to primary debates as a way to showcase their top news talent, they have packed their anchor desks with four or more moderators. CBS will have five questioners querying seven candidates.
“How do you keep a coherent threadline of questioning when you are moving from one moderator to the next?” he asks.
Still, he praised CBS’ team of skilled journalists, as the onus will be on them to ask sharp questions and follow-ups, as well as to be mindful of including topics more specific to the state population. Also essential is in the direction they are given by producers and directors in the control room, he said.
“One of the challenges for the television anchor is it is easy to tell what is going on in the room,” Lukasiewicz said. “It is hard to know what the television audience is seeing.”
The obvious storylines for Tuesday night involve Sanders, Biden and Bloomberg. The latest polls show Sanders catching up to Biden in South Carolina, which is a make-or-break primary for the former Vice President. Bloomberg, meanwhile, needs to rebound from a debate debut that drew dismal reviews. His campaign rescheduled a planned appearance at a CNN town hall on Monday for Wednesday to give him more time for debate preparation.
“Low expectations definitely play a part here, and Bloomberg will have the benefit of not having to do much to exceed them,” Schroeder said. “Still, two inferior performances in a row, with all of the attendant press coverage and social media reaction, would be exactly what Bloomberg does not need at this point in the race.”
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