The Primary Debates: Summary & Conclusion

So, Ive finished watching at least one early primary debate from every cycle since 1980 (I couldn’t find anything earlier online). I did this both in an attempt to discover any great candidates who never made it to a general election as well as to get a fuller perspective on the makeup and history of the parties themselves.

Watching the primaries, you really see the various factions of both parties performing their eternal back and forth, as you can imagine. There’s a far greater diversity of agendas in both parties than the general election debates would have you believe, since the two candidates who survived into the general are basically exactly the same except on social wedge issues (since they want to win over independents). The Democrats have, I think, the biggest differences between their pool of candidates every year but have less factions overall.

General Trends

I think, if you wanted to rank all the different overall fields of candidates in each primary, the Republican fields more or less got consistently worse barring some brief reprieves in 2000 and 2008. For example, I actually liked the Republican field of 1980. There were a few candidates whom I respected and thought would make great presidents, such as John Anderson and young Bob Dole. Then 1988 had no candidates who appealed to me. 1996 was full of so many obnoxious, hateful candidates that I couldn’t even stand to finish watching the debate. 2000 at least had John McCain back when he was still kind of a maverick and good man. 2008 had Ron Paul before he went senile, a seemingly reasonable Giuliani and some underdogs like Brownback who, while I didn’t like them, I thought they had some alright moments. 2012 was just an absolute, complete and total shit show. Not only the worst field of candidates I’ve ever seen anywhere, but the worst single debate I’ve ever suffered through. I don’t see how any rational, intelligent person could watch that travesty and think “yeah, these guys are great! They totally have in-depth knowledge of policy, my interests at heart, and will totally turn America around!” They deliberately dodged every single question asked by the audience, and did nothing but spew a lot of nonsense about how it’s all Obama’s fault and government is evil. I’d say this is the year the GOP died as a responsible party. This is when they stopped being a party of ideas and policies (as terrible as I thought those were) and became a party of blind opposition, obstructionism and “Obama is evil!!!1!11!”

The 2016 primary was worse in the fact that it was overcrowded and a madman hijacked the nomination, but that was just the rot setting in—a symptom of an overall larger problem. Had Republicans actually put forth real, feasible ideas and people with carefully thought out policies, a huckster talking out his ass and scapegoating Hispanics wouldn’t have been able to get a foot in the door. Nor would the voters have felt the need to turn to an outsider for answers if their representatives were actually offering real solutions not just deflecting blame and throwing hallow platitudes around. At that point, we were so far gone that having a gives-no-fucks guy on stage to call out the other candidates for their shit, and call out the whole process for the farce it is was a welcome change. At least that made it funny and added some meta entertainment where 2012 (and to a lesser extent, 1988-2000) were just straight up torture for me to watch.

The Democratic fields in 1984 and 1988 were evenly divided between great progressive choices and awful, boring Centrist jokes like Mondale, Dukakis and Gephardt. ’88 was a step up, and the good candidates stood out more. 1992 was an interesting field between Larry Agran and Jerry Brown. 2000 was a weird red headed stepchild of a primary where they only had two people running, neither was great and it was an unprecedented 50 state sweep. I don’t know why the field was so ridiculously narrow, and I don’t think it did the Democrats any favors, since people didn’t really have a choice and Gore went into the general basically untested. 2004 was a step backwards to the 1980s territory with a highly divided field in terms of ideology and skill. Having Joe Lieberman there, and allowed to shit on Dean all night made me feel like I was watching a Republican primary. 2008 was back to 1992 levels, where all the candidates were at least serviceable and some (like Obama) were fantastic.

2016 for the Democrats was back to 2000 territory with an extremely narrow field, a boring insider and a progressive—the good thing though, was this time around the progressive was actually a great orator and candidate. So again, the quality of Democratic fields go in circles it seems, while the Republicans have been one slow, steady slide downwards into the complete and total disaster that was their 2016 primary.

2020 had too many candidates, somehow all but ~3 were insufferable. The Anti-Sanders bias was back in full force, this time with Warren running a transparently self-sabotaging play against the progressive wing. The best candidate, Yang, got among the least attention. Rules were broken to allow a billionaire with little political experience to participate in the election, a shameful disregard for the entire Democratic heritage.

In Regards to the Debate Format

Like the general election debates, I think the candidates and voters are done a great disservice by not being given adequate time to lay out their policies in depth. Once again, I think a Lincoln/Douglas debate style would be best, maybe with additional debates asking pointed questions for specifics on anything left out.

The “ask each other questions” segments had the potential to be really interesting, but ended up being more of a gimmick than anything. My favorite use of it was Al Gore (who was an attack dog the ’88 cycle) challenging Gephardt on his vote for the Reagan tax cuts in the 1988 primary. Aside from that, this feature was never used as effectively as it could’ve been. Nor was it ever revealing towards the questioner or answer-ee in a way where a regular debate question wouldn’t have sufficed. Besides, I think the whole point of debates is to ask the same questions to all the candidates so we can compare positions. The primaries that ignored it, 1992 and 2008, were by far the best debates.

I also wasnt a fan of the journalists / “expert” panelists and their questions, most of the time. First off, they often asked different questions to different candidates yet again, which is the same problem. And sometimes, especially in the case of that purple suit lady in 2004, they come off as really smug, pretentious and it drives me nuts. Just submit your questions to the moderator and be done with it. The absolute worst example of this by far was in the 1988 Republican debate when they brought in this awful guest questioner for absolutely no reason, wasted like ten minutes summarizing her career, and then she inserted her own political opinions into the whole proceedings. It was literally unwatchable and a waste of valuable time for anyone attempting to learn about the candidates.

The worst question I saw get asked was the ridiculous “you said we could have captured Bin Laden 6 months earlier—are you saying the troops weren’t working hard enough??!?!?” directed at Howard Dean. And I think the worst example of a moderator being unfair or disrespectful to a candidate was when the guy made a joke about Gary Hart’s affair scandal in 1988.

My favorite single moment was in that very same debate, when Hart gave his brilliant closing statement. A runner up would be McGovern’s own closing statement in a 1984 debate on the wasted vote fallacy.

My least favorite moment was probably anytime Ron Paul answered in 2012, because I had so much respect for him coming out of 2008 and every time he answered in ’12 I wondered if he had maybe went senile or something, or else maybe sold out to have a chance to win.

The most profound moment, neither good nor bad, was the one audience member’s question to the GOP field in 2012 regarding if they will appeal to the “mainstream republicans” and not get too drawn into the TEA Party…and then they all proceeded to suck up to the TEA Party instead. I really think that moment has the potential to be in the history books someday, as the instant the Republican Party died. (At least the old Reagan coalition of the Sixth Party System anyway.)

This is arguably my favorite moment from a Republican Primary debate, at least among those I’ve witnessed. Say what you will about Trump, the man is an expert at thinking on his feet and deflecting attacks. I hate Cruz and I hated this cheap line of attack, so I chuckled to see him go down hard.

You’ll notice the following trends in the eventual nominees of both parties:

Democrats

With the Democrats, what I’ve noticed is, nearly every cycle, you have the progressives (ex: McGovern, Jackson, Babbit, Brown, Bradley, Dean, Kucinich, Bernie, etc) and the Centrists / Center-Right / Republican-Lite candidates. Tragically, almost every single cycle, the latter group wins out and the progressives aren’t even given a token gesture like a VP nod for one of their candidates to placate them. Cycle after cycle (with 2008 being the possible lone exception given Obama’s campaign rhetoric) their champions are beaten out and their supporters expected to fall in line anyway, because “who else are you gonna support—the Republicans?” It’s a really upsetting trend, and one of the greatest pieces of evidence of the two party system leading to the disenfranchisement of ideas and huge sections of the population. I firmly believe this is one of the reasons the Democrats have trouble keeping their members motivated to vote (especially in off-year elections with the exception of 2018.) If you see your top choices continuously snuffed out and hung out to dry for a slightly less terrible rightist…why bother getting involved? This in turn causes the Democrats to assume the progressives/millennials aren’t worth catering to, so they pivot even further to the right, and it’s a vicious self-fulfilling prophecy.

I despise the way people blame the millennials/progressives for this though. It feels like victim-blaming to me; maybe if the Democrats stood by both wings of the party we wouldn’t lose faith in the system. Regarding the VP selections specifically, I think the single worst examples of this were Dukakis choosing Bentsen over Jackson, Gore choosing fucking Joe Lieberman over Bill Bradley, and Hillary picking Kaine over Bernie or even O’Malley. I’d strongly suggest the Democrats do more to integrate their progressive wing closer to the process if they want to get participation and excitement up. But again, since the ’70s, (with McGovern running a far-left platform in ’72 and getting walloped for largely unrelated circumstances) it’s like they’re afraid to embrace liberalism and instead feel the need to woo Republicans instead. It’s maybe the most frustrating trend of modern politics.

The Democrats kinda go back and forth between nominating their “best” candidate (in terms of charisma and following) and their “least bad” candidate who’s inoffensive and vanilla enough to theoretically appeal to the widest slice of America (but whom nobody is excited for in reality). 1984, 1988, 2004, 2016 and 2020 were all years where they sent in a bland “third way” neoliberal whom nobody exactly hated (except Hillary) but nobody really liked either. And each time, they suffered for it. Again, you’d think they’d learn by now to not do that, but the fact that it happened again this cycle and they somehow blame Bernie for their loss anyway makes me worried for the future. I can now say definitively that each time they gave us a milquetoast loser there was at least one far better choice, with a more passionate following behind them and better oratory powers. In 1992, 2000 and 2008 they put forth the most charismatic candidate they had, and won. (They won the popular vote in 2000, and in my firm opinion Gore was robbed in Florida…but I digress.) It really does go to show—appearances, charisma and money are everything. Each time they put forth a decently attractive, suave guy and threw their support and money behind him, they did the best.

1976, 1992 and 2008, the only times a non-incumbent Democrat won the election in the Sixth Party System, were darkhorse candidates whom no one saw coming. The lesson is clear, stop running shitty “My Turn!” party bigwigs whose only selling point is how many jobs they’ve had in the Federal government. Do this, and make concessions towards the progressive wing (like the VP or if applicable a cabinet position or a progressive party chairman) and the Democrats could be unbeatable going forward.

Republicans

With the Republicans, you see the religious social conservatives, the economic conservatives/neoliberals and the neocons as their main factions. It’s a larger variety of ideologies, but until 2012~2016 it hasn’t been as pronounced or detrimental as the Democrat’s divisions because their interests largely aligned.

At GOP debates, there has always been the token religious guy like Ted Cruz or Pat Buchanan. Then there’s the token businessman bragging about how successful his corporate management was and that he’ll do the same to government. Since 1996 there’s also been the token black guy to “prove” the party isn’t racist. (Basically the living embodiment of “I have a black friend!”) With Republicans, they were always smart enough to nominate the charismatic guy when they had one (Reagan, GWB, Trump). Otherwise, they set forth the boring party insider who came in second on the previous primary cycle (Bush I, Dole, McCain, Romney). They lost all but one of those instances, and that was just because Dukakis was a uniquely horrible candidate who ran a campaign so awful he blew a huge lead. The difference between Republicans and the Democrats is in the years when they nominated the “wrong” choice, (a boring guy who lost,) there wasn’t an obviously better person they passed over (at least that I could pick out) with the exception of McCain in 2000. There was never a Jesse Jackson fighting for the spirit of the party’s past ideals, or a Howard Dean or Bernie who built up a massive grass roots following.

There are commonly repeated talking points and applause lines at the Democratic debates too, but it’s a lot more pronounced at the Republicans. You could make a drinking game of all the times Reagan is name-dropped, Roe v Wade is attacked, “marriage is between one man and one woman” and someone brags about their business acumen or says the answer is to lower taxes and the free market will solve the problem (whatever that may be.) Also, their debates are a lot more mean-spirited I’ve found. They go out of their way to attack the Democrats as people, name-dropping individual Democratic candidates for boos and abuse, on a level that shows a total lack of respect and at times makes me feel legit uncomfortable. They absolutely created the atmosphere for a bully like Trump to thrive with their unique debate philosophy. The Republican debates were basically a farce since 1996—he just came along and played to the crowd they’d fostered better than even they could. (The debates were already a glorified game show, should we be surprised a reality TV star won?)

Now, since W Bush’s administration, the neoconservative agenda of nation building has fallen out of favor with the poorer Republican voters. They want their manufacturing jobs back, which the GOP elites know is never going to happen. Up to now, the Republicans have tricked many poor people to voting against their economic self-interest by using social conservatism and racial dog whistles. Trump tapped into that as we all know, to fantastic success by saying openly what had only been implied before. Similarly, the religious/social conservative wing are pissed that abortion is still a thing, gay marriage is now legal, many independents and Democrats aren’t buying the transgender fear-mongering and weed is becoming accepted. They feel betrayed by their representatives, whom they feel haven’t put up more of a fight to stop these trends. So, the coalition is breaking apart or at least the balance of power within the party is shifting. Up to this point, the party has nominated neoliberals/neocons—Reagan, the Bushes, McCain and Romney followed that trend. (Dole, in my estimation, was more of a paleo-conservative, truly the end of a bygone era of Republicans.) And now we have Trump, whose whole ethos is pure nationalism and xenophobia.

After Bush II, the public soundly rejected openly neoconservative governance, was slowly but surely rejecting social conservatism, and the party was and has continued to be in desperate need for a refounding. I think Bush II and Iraq have broken the Sixth Party System’s Republican coalition the same way LBJ and Vietnam broke the Fifth Party System’s Democratic coalition. I personally want the Ron Paul-faction to win out and reform the Republicans into a Libertarian Party, but Trump has proven the lowest common denominator among Republicans is actually bigotry and anti-intellectualism, nothing more. I don’t know what kind of voter bloc will coalesce to make the Republicans (or their replacement party) nationally viable again and in the meantime it wont be pretty.

Until Trump in this last cycle, the more fiery, unorthodox candidates have always been reigned in and the base fell in line behind the eventual nominee in a way the Democrats don’t. I believe this was due to a combination of the Republicans being older and more willing to compromise if it protects their bottom line (the bussinessmen / neoliberals) or protects their religiously mandated social order (the evangelicals / racists). But with Trump, that’s now changed. Unless the Republican establishment somehow purges the toxic Trump and social conservative wings, a neoliberal/neocon like the Bushes, much less a paleoconservative will never win their primaries again. If a business/fiscal conservative wins the nomination, it will have to be through sheer charisma and brilliant campaigning, otherwise the Alt-Right and xenophobic wing of the base is far more fired up and will overpower them.

How the Republicans and Democrats react to this fundamental change in the traditional Rightwing base will determine the dynamic of the coming Seventh Party System. But it should be clear to all after 2016 that dissatisfaction with the current parties has reached a tipping point and a realignment is coming.

My favorite moment from a Democratic Primary debate among those I’ve witnessed. It’d great to see someone at the debates themselves, and among the main parties, challenge the asinine “wasted vote” fallacy. McGovern’s voice just has such a comforting, grandfatherly cadence and I love hearing him speak.

1 Comment

  1. Good summary of the trends and formats of the primary debates. I enjoy your expert knowledge of political science. A subject I never had a deep interest in. Instead of studying government leaders my interest has always been in finding ways of limiting their power. My ideal is finding a way that government had so little power to influence our lives that it didn’t matter who was in office because they had so little power to influence our lives. Bastiat in The Law points out that it is the possibility of legal plunder that makes people want to vote to so they can either use the state to plunder others or to defend themselves from being plundered. I am against anyone plundering anyone. I guess my interest in political science is limited to finding a way to do that. Seems like that was what the original US Constitution was designed to do. My interest was always in supporting those who promised to do that. Politicians that want to do that are very rare since the rise of what I see as the backwards political movement that calls itself “progressivism”. But your analysis has given me interest in what to me was always a dull subject.

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