Bernie Sanders’ Idea For Inter-Party Primary Debates Isn’t As Wild As You Think

In June, Bernie Sanders, a U.S. senator from Vermont and candidate for the Democratic presidential nomination in 2016, made waves in the world of political punditry when he suggested in a letter to the chairwoman of the Democratic National Committee that the party should sanction more primary debates, and that some of those debates should even include Republican candidates for the presidency.

Paul Singer of USA Today wrote at the time that “Sanders said inter-party debates would show a clear contrast between the parties’ policies – to the benefit of Democrats.” Politico’s Dylan Byers further clarified this point, writing, “Inter-party debates could also be used to convince registered Republican voters that they would be better off voting for a Democrat, Sanders said.”

However, the response by the party organizations themselves to Sanders’ idea about inter-party debates was clear and swift. Ashe Schow of The Washington Examiner quoted the spokesman of the Republican National Committee, James Hewitt, as saying, “The RNC has made clear that if any Republican candidate participates in an unsanctioned debate they will not be allowed to take part in any of the other RNC sanctioned primary debates.”

Meanwhile, Andrew Rafferty of NBC News wrote that candidates for the Democratic nomination “who participate in outside debates risk forfeiting their eligibility to participate in the DNC sanctioned ones.”

As far as DNC sanctioned debates are concerned, there are currently plans to have only six, with Gerry Mullany of The New York Times reporting in May that the party would be “holding at least one in each of four early-nominating states: Iowa, New Hampshire, South Carolina and Nevada.”

And yet, it can be difficult not to see the appeal in Sanders’ idea for having multiple candidates from both parties debating on the same stage, and perhaps extending invitations to candidates from major third parties to participate as well. These events could be previews of what the general election presidential debates in 2016 might look and sound like, and they would give voters a chance to see a wider variety of opinion represented on the stage.

These events ... would give voters a chance to see a wider variety of opinion represented on the stage.
Chris Estep, IVN Independent Author
After all, public interest in primary debates as they are currently arranged compared to the interest generated in general election presidential debates has been a mere pittance. Chris Ariens of Adweek compiled all of the Nielsen ratings data for the 2012 Republican primary debates into a single chart, and showed that the most-watched GOP primary debate took place on December 10, 2011 on ABC, with just over 7.6 million viewers tuning in to watch.

Meanwhile, Nielsen ratings data for the first presidential debate between President Barack Obama and former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney indicated that around 67.2 million people viewed the event.

While it may be that the higher television ratings of general election debates are due to the fact that more and more Americans begin to pay attention to the presidential election as the campaign season goes on, there also may be something to be said about the relative appeal of having candidates from different parties discussing the topics of the day on the same debate stage.

At the same time, the current rules that the two major parties place on their respective candidates regarding debate participation clearly prohibit the sort of inter-party debates for which Bernie Sanders is advocating. However, what constitutes a televised “debate,” as opposed to what constitutes an event at which multiple candidates are present and elaborate on their political positions is somewhat less clear.

For instance, Rod Boshart of the Quad-City Times reported on July 6 that an event called the Brown-Black Forum would be taking place in Iowa later this year. Boshart reported that there would be “a Dec. 3 GOP forum and a Jan. 11 event for Democrats — both in Des Moines — to discuss education, immigration, economic opportunity, health care and criminal justice issues of concern to minority Americans.”

There may, then, actually be an opportunity for events of an inter-party nature, although not like the inter-party debates for which Bernie Sanders is advocating. Having a forum format event at which candidates from different parties spoke or answered questions from a common moderator might not conflict with the parties’ rules against participation in non-sanctioned debates.

Responding to a request for comment, Democratic National Committee spokeswoman Miryam Lipper said:

“The DNC’s goal is to create an environment with a reasonable number of impactful debates that give voters ample opportunity to see the candidates side-by-side, while remaining manageable for all of the candidates. We welcome outside forum-style events that offer voters additional opportunities to hear from candidates.”

There might also be added benefits to having an inter-party forum event in an early primary state like New Hampshire, where state law allows registered independent voters to participate in the primary election of their choosing. It may encourage these voters to turn out on primary day and influence the outcome of the elections.

Michael Zona, the communications director for the New Hampshire Republican Party, commented for this story that the state party “does not get involved in the outcome of the presidential primary; rather, we aim to prepare for the general election and our eventual Republican nominee.”

Bernie Sanders’ idea about inter-party presidential debates may have received some media attention, but it requires some key adaptations in order to become a reality in the current climate. Having a forum event attended by candidates from multiple parties might be one way to satisfy the electorate’s desire for inter-party dialogue, generate more interest in the primary season, and create opportunities for voters to become more informed.

Author’s note: The Sanders campaign did not respond to a request for comment on this story.