Just 1.9% of Americans watched the Dec. 19 Democratic presidential debate.
The way things are going, the audience for the 10th and last 2020 Democratic Party presidential debate on Feb. 24, 2020 will be zero.
A total of 15.26 million viewers watched the first debate on June 26, 2019. By the most recent debate on Dec. 19, the number of viewers had sunk like a stone to 6.17 million.
That’s a miniscule 1.9% of Americans.
But it doesn’t matter. What really matters is how the media of all types, particularly social media, interpret the debates to the public and grab elements of the debates to advance agendas.
Social media is the dominant influencer because:
- National television news has a steadily shrinking audience. In the 2016 presidential race between Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump, only 10 percent of people said national nightly network television news was the most helpful news source.
- Print newspapers have a steadily shrinking audience. Total circulation of U.S. daily newspapers today, for a U.S. population of 329 million, is less than in 1940, when the U.S. population was 132 million. In the 2016 presidential election, as many people named late night comedy shows as most helpful for political news as named a print newspaper.
- Local TV news tends to focus on murders, fires, car crashes and the weather, not presidential politics.
Regardless of the issues discussed by the 10 Democrats during the 120 minutes of the second night of the first debate on June 27, 2019, it was a terse exchange between Kamala Harris and Joe Biden about busing that dominated subsequent coverage of the debate and online discussion. “Kamala Harris attacks Joe Biden’s record on busing and working with segregationists in vicious exchange at Democratic debate” proclaimed the CNBC headline.
Similarly, regardless of the consequential issues discussed by the seven Democrats during the 120 minutes of the Dec. 19 debate, the media, including social media, focused on:
- Who “won” the debate.
- Assertions that “the knives came out” for Pete Buttigieg.
- The vile wine cave. Elizabeth Warren castigated Buttigieg for holding a fundraiser with rich people in a Napa Valley “wine cave.” Politico reporter Natasha Korecki said that was “the most entertaining” part of the debate. “ The conservative National Review headline read, “Biden Cruises and Buttigieg Takes Fire in the Wine Cave Debate.” The left-leaning Mother Jones said, “The “Wine Cave” Debate Was One of the Campaign’s Most Consequential Arguments.” And the story still has legs. On Sunday, Dec. 22, the New York Times ran a story relating the frustration and disappointment of the wine cave’s owners, both of whom are active Democrats, at being thrust into the public eye in such a negative manner.
- Elizabeth Warren’s statement that economists are “just wrong” when they argue her proposals for trillions in new taxes will stifle growth and investment.
- It was a testy night. “The political press, always thirsty for conflict, pounced,” the Columbia Journalism Review noted. “In a push notification, the New York Times alerted readers that we’d seen a “contentious evening”; Dan Balz, of the Washington Post, noted that a “collegial start” had given way to “fireworks.” There was talk of gloves coming off, pummeling, and slugfests, and that was just from Politico. Another Politico piece listed the “five most brutal onstage brawls” of the night, complete with a tally chart and boxing-glove emojis.”
- Diversity is what matters. Time pointed out that the only non-white candidate on stage was Andrew Yang.“This forced the uncomfortable conversation about how the party that talks so big about including diverse voices and that depends on minority voters ended up with such a white set of candidates in a field that was, at one point, historically diverse,” Time said.
In any case, what the American public really cared about, some media observed, wasn’t the debate but the upcoming release of Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker. The first item in the Dec. 21, 2019 NY Times On Politics newsletter referenced this. “It appears nobody consulted the Jedi Council before scheduling a Democratic debate on the same night “Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker” opened, the newsletter noted.
Lots of folks have chimed in about all the debates on social media, but they’ve mostly talked to others in their bubble in response to algorithm-delivered news content. As noted in Towards a New Enlightenment? A Transcendent Decade“… the emergence of the political “Twitterverse,” … has become a locus of communication between politicians, citizens, and the press, has coarsened political discourse, fostered “rule by tweet,” and advanced the spread of misinformation.”
Twitter discourse on national politics also tends to be driven by a very small segment of the population. According to the Pew Research Center, Twitter dialogue by American adults about national politics is driven by a small number of prolific political tweeters. They make up only 6% of all U.S. adults with public accounts on the site, but account for 73% of tweets from American adults that mention national politics.
Furthermore, as a Knight Foundation study put it, Twitter is “a distorted mirror of Americans’ political views,” because it is dominated by the center left, countered by the extreme right.
Facebook plays a major role in the political debate, too, and not in a good way. As the Columbia Journalism Review reported, “Facebook is a toxic town square.” And that makes it dangerous because, it’s a primary source of political news for a growing segment off the public. A recent study conducted by the Pew Research Center estimated, for example, that more than 60% of Americans got their information about the 2016 US presidential election on Facebook.
Instagram has a growing place in public perception of politics and the debates, too, and could be a flashpoint for online disinformation during the 2020 election. “Disinformation is increasingly based on images as opposed to text,” said Paul Barrett, the author of an NYU report that’s prompted a renewed look at the problem. “Instagram is obviously well-suited for that kind of meme-based activity.”
It’s an engagement powerhouse that attracts far younger users than its parent company, Facebook, according to the NYU report The report cited a Senate Intelligence Committee report that noted the Internet Research Agency — which led Russia’s disinformation campaigns in the 2016 election — found more engagement on Instagram than any other platform.
So, does it matter whether fewer and fewer people are actually watching the Democratic debates? Probably not.