The three candidates running for the Democratic presidential nomination debated last Saturday night, and if you didn’t realize they were trading views on foreign policy and the economy during primetime you’re not alone.
About 8.5 million people watched nationally. That number might not sound bad, but it was about half the viewership from the first Democratic debate, six million less than the second Republican debate and only 2.5 million more than the first Republican “kids table” debate. Put that way, 8.5 million does sound bad. Saturday’s debate was also on network TV. The others have been on cable.
It underscored a clear theme from this election season thus far: Attention-wise, the Republicans are killing it. Donald Trump leads with 28 percent of the vote, according to a recent MSNBC poll, and has received the most media coverage of any candidate. Meanwhile, the Democrats have flown under the radar. This storyline matters more for Philadelphia than anywhere else, because we’re hosting the 2016 Democratic National Convention.
But perhaps Philly shouldn’t fear the tepid reception of the Democratic race thus far. Between the likelihood of a Hillary Clinton nomination and the fact that whoever wins the Republican spot will have been decided by the time of the DNC, political observers believe plenty of importance will have shifted back to the Democratic side by next July.
Dick Polman, national political columnist at WHYY, said the timing of the conventions sets up Philadelphia perfectly. The RNC is scheduled for July 18-21, the DNC for July 25-28. Regardless of what happens with Trump, the field will be settled. Trump will either be out, or the circus will consist of him and Hillary Clinton or Bernie Sanders.
“If Trump manages to get nominated in Cleveland, it would arguably increase interest in the Philadelphia convention because everyone will be focused on Hillary’s response and counter-agenda,” Polman said. “And if Trump doesn’t get nominated, interest in the Democratic confab will be just as high. Hillary will arguably have a more electable opponent and therefore whatever she says, and the mood of Democrats generally, will be very newsworthy.”
Hillary Clinton would also be the first woman presidential nominee, attracting plenty of attention. When Obama accepted the presidential nomination in 2008, becoming the first black nominee, a political-convention-record 38 million people watched his acceptance speech on TV and 75,000 were there in person.
“Clinton is super-popular here,” said Paul Davies, a professor of journalism at the University of Delaware and Wall Street Journal and Inquirer alum. “If Hillary gets the nomination, which she likely will, it’s a historic event just like Obama.”
About 50,000 people are expected to attend the Philadelphia DNC, putting it above the 35,000 attendance from the 2012 DNC in Charlotte and even with the 2012 Republican DNC in Boston. The people who attend are usually political wonks or part of the industry. They would go no matter how much attention has been paid to the Democratic presidential race. They sit through days of speeches that few others would enjoy and that most TV networks would never air.
“You go down there, it’s boring,” Davies said. “It’s like watching paint dry.”
So if the Philadelphia DNC seems to lack importance, it likely won’t be because of Trump. It’ll be because conventions usually aren’t much fun until the big speeches by the presidential candidates on the final nights.
Most likely, Clinton will be giving the final speech. The networks will be tuned in, and Philadelphia will have its moment in the spotlight.
“That’s going to be a huge event,” Davies said.