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Will the Democratic National Committee allow more than six debates during the primary season? (Image: DonkeyHotey/flickr/cc)

For Many Democrats, Six Primary Season Debates 'Is Just Not Enough'

Hillary Clinton's Democratic rivals, Bernie Sanders and Martin O'Malley, have both called for a more robust debate schedule

Deirdre Fulton

As 2016 Republican presidential hopefuls gather in California for their second nationally televised debate on Wednesday evening, a group of Democrats will rally outside the Democratic National Committee (DNC) headquarters in Washington, D.C., calling for more debates during the primary race.

As it currently stands, the DNC has scheduled just six debates during the primary season, only four of which will take place before the Iowa caucuses in February. Furthermore, the Committee has promised to disinvite candidates who participate in "non-sanctioned" debates.

"Without more Democratic debates, the campaign will be dominated for months by Republican extremism, immigrant-bashing, and fear-mongering on topics from war and peace to women's reproductive rights, with major issues not even addressed."
—RootsAction

While the DNC sanctioned six debates in both 2004 and 2008, candidates were allowed to participate in events hosted by media outlets or universities, without repercussion. According to FiveThirtyEight, candidates ultimately attended 15 debates in 2004 and 25 in 2008.

Led by the nonpartisan and grassroots group Allow Debate, some Democrats are denouncing this year's "exclusivity clause" as "unprecedented and undemocratic"—not to mention politically un-savvy. 

"Tens of millions of people are only seeing the Republican message, while we wait for the Democrats to debate," Allow Debate founder Ben Doernberg told Boston.com on Wednesday.

"Six debates is maybe two questions on climate change, maybe three," Doernberg added to ABC News. "It is just not enough if you care deeply about an issue and want to understand where the candidates differ."

"I think every Democratic campaign and the DNC should have to explain why we are ceding the discussion and attention to the Republicans by refusing to the kind of robust debate schedule we've always had," Martin O’Malley's campaign manager Dave Hamrick said in a statement to Politico.

Former Maryland Gov. O'Malley has been vocal about the need for more debates, as has fellow candidate Bernie Sanders.

"At a time when many Americans are demoralized about politics and have given up on the political process, I think it’s imperative that we have as many debates as possible," Sanders said in a statement in August. "I look forward to working with the DNC to see if we can significantly expand the proposed debate schedule."

"Without more Democratic debates, the campaign will be dominated for months by Republican extremism, immigrant-bashing, and fear-mongering on topics from war and peace to women's reproductive rights—with major issues not even addressed," the online advocacy group RootsAction said in a call-to-action on Wednesday. "And with few debates, the process will be even more dominated in early voting states by a deluge of big-money ads promoting Republicans or corporate Democrats."

Some have accused DNC chairwoman Debbie Wasserman Schultz of limiting the number of debates in an effort to help former Secretary of State and faltering frontrunner Hillary Clinton. "The question remains," Hamrick wrote in the statement to Politico, "if the DNC is still holding to their unprecedented exclusivity clause, are they doing it at the Clinton campaign's request?"

But as Des Moines Register columnist Kathie Obradovich wrote on Sunday, such a strategy is likely to backfire.

"I don’t know what Wasserman Schultz's motives may be, but she's not doing Clinton any favors by refusing to consider more debates," Obradovich wrote. "Clinton’s campaign has said she’s open to more debates and she's a seasoned debater. Any perception the DNC is trying to grease the skids for Clinton runs counter to her own efforts to show she intends to earn the nomination, not stage a coronation."

Indeed, said RootsAction co-founder Jeff Cohen, "It really is a shame for a party called 'Democratic' to be sending a message that it wants to shield one candidate from too much democracy."


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