Nobody’s watching the Democratic debates. Does it matter?

Just 1.9% of Americans watched the Dec. 19 Democratic presidential debate.

APTOPIX Election 2020 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 Postnoted that a “collegial start” had given way to “fireworks.” There was talk of gloves coming offpummeling, 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.”

tweet

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.

 

 

 

Is Pete Buttigieg really a bold new choice?

A Feb. 19-20, 2019 national survey of U.S. likely voters conducted by Rasmussen Reports found that 62% of likely Democratic voters believed Democrats should look for a fresh face to run for president in 2020.

The national media have found that fresh face. No, I’m not talking about Beto O’Rourke. It’s Pete Buttigieg (pronounced “Buddha-judge”), the 37-year-old Democratic mayor of South Bend, IN. He has launched an exploratory committee, but hasn’t formally declared he’s a candidate.

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Pete Buttigieg

I didn’t vote for Trump or Clinton in 2016 and can’t imagine myself voting for Trump in 2020, so I’m open to a moderate alternative. I’ve listened to Buttigieg on television and radio and came away impressed. He’s extremely well-spoken (though he can be a bit long-winded) and comes across as thoughtful and good-natured.

“I’m definitely the only left-handed, Maltese-American, Episcopalian, millennial, gay mayor in the race. So I’ve got that lane all to myself,” he told CNN.

Calling himself a “millennial Mayor” who’s offering “a bold vision for our future,” Buttigieg’s well-educated (A Rhodes Scholar, he graduated from Oxford University and Harvard), has military credentials (Served as an officer in U.S. Navy Reserve 2009-17, deployed to Afghanistan in 2014) and is openly gay (Married Chasten Glezman on June 16, 2018).

In contrast to Trump’s bombast, Buttigieg offers calm deliberation. (He calls the other Democratic candidates “competitors, not opponents”) and says he’s considering a presidential race because, “Our democracy needs a tune-up.”

Like I said, he was intriguing and I found myself thinking, “Maybe he really is different and worth considering.”

Then I looked more closely, read about him, listened to his TV and radio interviews.

Talk about disappointment! He may sound calming and creative, but he’s essentially a carbon copy of the rest of the Democratic pack,. He supports:

  • Giving statehood and political representation to the District of Columbia and Puerto Rico
  • Abolishing the electoral college in favor of relying on the popular vote
  • Expanding the Supreme Court (to 15 members) “What we need to do is stop the Supreme Court from sliding toward being viewed as a nakedly political institution.”
  • Treating healthcare as a fundamental human right.
  • Offering “Medicare for all who want it.”
  • Ensuring wide reproductive freedom. “The last thing (a woman) needs is a male politician like me imposing boundaries that might even be politically motivated on her healthcare choices.”
  • Initiating stronger controls over access to guns, including universal background checks and banning some weapons. “Not every common-sense rule amounts to an infringement of second amendment rights.”
  • Backing off from a border wall as a priority for border security.
  • Implementing the Green New Deal. “The Green New Deal gets it right that this truly is a national emergency.”
  • Aggressively confronting climate change.
  • Raising K-12 teacher pay “so teachers are treated commensurate with other highly valued professionals.”
  • Regulating the financial industry more aggressively.
  • Restoring the influence of the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau. “We Need to be more assertive in insuring that the public interest is met through regulation.”

And on and on.

In other words, Buttigieg isn’t so bold and different from the rest of pack after all. They’re all pretty much uber-progressive peas in a pod.

Peas in a pod