The Democratic Party solution was to plan for two debates in the same format, each accommodating 10 candidates. As more and more candidates entered the race, their total number exceeded 20, so a few candidates with little visible public support were necessarily cut from the debates. All the major candidates and most of the minor candidates would be guaranteed nationwide exposure on television, however. So far, so good. Next, the 20 selected candidates had to be distributed between the two debates. Here is where the Democrats screwed up. The party decided to draw lots to determine which candidates would participate in which debate.
The random drawing was intended to avoid any favoritism, real or imagined, in the debate assignment. Surely, a random assignment would be fair. Well, actually no. The procedure allowed the producers of the debate to avoid charges of favoritism, but it did not assure a “best” outcome. It did not even assure a reasonable outcome. The random drawing could easily have placed all the most popular candidates in one debate and all the least popular candidates in the other. That did not happen, but, arguably, the outcome was still less than ideal.
Here are the lineups for the two debates:
What is odd about these assignments is that the currently most popular candidates largely ended up in the second night debate. Below are the candidates, from most to least popular, ranked by poll results. This ranking is only approximate, but it’s close enough for our purposes.
FIRST NIGHT DEBATERS SECOND NIGHT DEBATERS Cory Booker Michael Bennet Julián Castro Joe Biden Bill de Blasio Pete Buttigieg John Delaney Kirsten Gillibrand Tulsi Gabbard Kamala Harris Jay Inslee John Hickenlooper Amy Klobuchar Bernie Sanders Beto O’Rourke Eric Swalwell Tim Ryan Marianne Williamson Elizabeth Warren Andrew Yang
Joe BidenNotice that, of the first five candidates, four are scheduled for the second debate. Four of the next five candidates are in the first debate. This assignment is less than ideal. Frontrunners Biden, Sanders, Harris, and Buttigieg will be fighting it out on the second night, but Warren will seemingly be debating lesser lights.
Bill de Blasio
To be sure, the Democrats did not create a varsity debate and a junior varsity debate as the GOP did, but the Democrats did not completely avoid the GOP error. If we rank the candidates by popularity, as judged by the polls, and number them 1 to 20, we find that the rank of the average participant in the first debate is 10.7 and the average rank of the average participant in the second debate is 10.3. In other words, the second debate has, on average, heavier hitters.
A much more evenhanded distribution would have placed candidates ranked by popularity in alternate debates. Such a procedure would have produced something like the following (first and second night rosters could be reversed):
In this assignment, of the top six candidates, three are in each debate. Compared with the assignment actually being used, the above distribution moves five candidates from the first to the second night and five candidates from the second night to the first. This seems like a fairer candidate distribution. On the other hand, one could argue that the second night still is the more popular group, since we began by placing the most popular candidate, Joe Biden, in this group and then alternated selections based on the relative positions of the candidates. Ironically, the average position of the candidates on the first night is 11th, whereas the average position of the candidates on the second night is 10th. The second debate still looks like the more popular group.
FIRST NIGHT DEBATERS SECOND NIGHT DEBATERS Julián Castro Michael Bennet Bill de Blasio Joe Biden John Delaney Cory Booker Kirsten Gillibrand Pete Buttigieg Kamala Harris Tulsi Gabbard John Hickenlooper Jay Inslee Amy Klobuchar Tim Ryan Beto O’Rourke Elizabeth Warren Bernie Sanders Marianne Williamson Eric Swalwell Andrew Yang
This suggests a final “best” sorting of candidates. To compensate for putting the top-ranking candidate on the second night, we then choose the next two candidates for the first night, after which, we alternate debates taking two candidates at a time. This procedure yields the following schedule:
In this assignment, three of the top six candidates are in each debate. The average position of a participant in each debate is 10.5. Interestingly, this scheme can be derived from the one being used by exchanging three first-night debaters for three second-night debaters.
FIRST NIGHT DEBATERS SECOND NIGHT DEBATERS Cory Booker Michael Bennet Julián Castro Joe Biden John Delaney Pete Buttigieg John Hickenlooper Bill de Blasio Jay Inslee Tulsi Gabbard Beto O’Rourke Kirsten Gillibrand Tim Ryan Kamala Harris Bernie Sanders Amy Klobuchar Elizabeth Warren Eric Swalwell Marianne Williamson Andrew Yang
One can quibble about whether my final proposal really is the best possible way to divide the candidates into two groups, but I think it’s pretty good and clearly better than what the Democrats came up with by drawing names from a hat (or whatever random procedure they used.)
After the debates, of course, the candidate rankings are certainly going to change. Stay tuned.