So far, the Democrats running for president have spent 12 hours, 22 minutes, and 3 seconds onstage for Democratic primary debates.
Across three debates on five nights in June, July, and September, one topic has consistently dominated: health care. In total, Democrats have spent more than 90 minutes so far talking about health care — about twice as much time as they’ve spent discussing either foreign policy or climate change.
Here are the 10 topics Democrats have spent the most time discussing at debates, with health care at the top:
These 10 most talked about issues don’t perfectly line up with what Democratic voters are concerned about. According to a Pew Research Center survey on Democrats’ priorities in 2019, the No. 1 issue they want to see dealt with is health care — and the debates have certainly given them a clear picture of how the candidates would do that.
But other issues received a less proportionate amount of attention, including climate change and the environment, which Democrats in the Pew survey said should be a priority for the president and Congress. (Most Democratic candidates participated in at least one climate change forum that devoted hours to the issue, but those events, unlike debates, weren’t sponsored by the Democratic National Committee.)
The data for our chart excludes opening and closing statements but includes moderator questions about a topic. Quantifying the back-and-forth from 12 hours of debates could be tough: Candidates would often jump between several policy issues in a single answer.
The categories are broad: The “economy” category includes time spent talking about taxes, economic inequality, and business regulation, while “strategy and electability” includes arguments about how far left the party should go as well as candidates’ answers on working with (or working around) Republicans in Congress.
Still, the distinctions aren’t always perfectly clear: criminal justice is often brought up when a candidate talks about race, and taxes and the economy often end up linked to health care. Even with those caveats on methodology, though, the issues that rose to the top did so by a substantial margin. And the issues that don’t make an appearance — including abortion, the Supreme Court, and the opioid epidemic — have gotten relatively little airtime.
Here are five takeaways from our analysis:
1) Health care has dominated
Health care leads the next-most-discussed issue, immigration, by double digits in minutes and it’s gotten twice as much attention as foreign policy, an area where the president arguably has far more control to dictate an agenda. Passing health care legislation has historically been quite challenging, and many of the candidates would prioritize other bills if given the chance to work with a Democratic Congress.
Which is unlikely. Because Republicans hold a structural advantage in the Senate.
But even so, the focus on health care isn’t really surprising. Voters care a lot about health care, feelings heightened in the wake of the failed 2017 Republican attempt to repeal the Affordable Care Act. Democrats also have big ideas about how to fix it: Bernie Sanders has brought the idea of single-payer Medicare-for-all to the party’s fore.
And for debate moderators, there are trade-offs associated with Medicare-for-all — an increase in taxes to cover the cost of a national health insurance plan, most obviously — that make for good gotcha kinds of questions. Shortly into the very first debate, moderators asked candidates to raise their hand if they supported abolishing private insurance.
The same conversation, more or less, has also kicked off the second and third debates.
2) Immigration has let candidates draw a sharp contrast with Trump — and sometimes one another
Immigration was the most-discussed topic at the first debate, which was spread out over two nights in June, when Julián Castro’s proposal to decriminalize border crossings started a spirited debate. Castro, Buttigieg, and Warren called for unauthorized border crossing to become a civil, rather than criminal, offense while Biden and O’Rourke argued for keeping the current statutes in place while focusing on reforming border processing and the asylum system.
Immigration has gotten slightly less airtime at the two debates that followed. But candidates have largely agreed that their main priorities should be to end the detention camps set up by the Trump administration and reform legal immigration. And the entire stage has seized an opportunity to draw a sharp contrast with Trump by characterizing hateful rhetoric against immigrants as deplorable.
3) Domestic issues have gotten far more attention than foreign policy
The foreign policy category is a wide net. It includes our wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, moving forward against threats like China or Russia, America’s involvement in multilateral agreements, and nuclear concerns about Iran and North Korea.
While these issues are sweeping and complex — and are often topics where the president can make significant change without Congress — they have not received much airtime.
Moderators tend to focus much more on immigration, health care, and the economy, and for obvious reason: Conventional wisdom holds that Americans don’t tend to vote on foreign policy issues.
4) There are plenty of subjects important to Democrats that candidates haven’t talked much about
There are quite a few big issues that have barely been broached, if spoken about at all, onstage.
During the June debates, the Supreme Court and abortion came up for under 10 minutes each — and several candidates dodged the Supreme Court question entirely to talk about race and gun policy. Another neglected issue is the opioid crisis. Despite the fact that more than 130 people die due to opioid overdoses every day and massive cases are coming against drug companies for their role in creating the opioid crisis, the candidates have rarely, if ever, mentioned the subject.
This was a continuation of what happened in the previous debates, where the candidates and moderators also neglected the opioid crisis — only mentioning it in asides as a vehicle to make a broader point rather than an issue in its own right. In those past debates, Joe Biden and Beto O’Rourke brought up opioids to criticize the health care industry. Cory Booker brought them up to blast incarcerating people who use drugs. Andrew Yang did so to vaguely talk about how the economy is sending people into despair. No one explained how they plan to fight the crisis head-on.
5) Democrats haven’t talked that much about Trump
For all the talk of electability, there hasn’t been substantial talk onstage about Trump himself.
The Mueller report and the question of what, if anything, the candidates would do to hold Trump accountable if they were elected added up to just under four minutes in the June debate (all in the first night) and six minutes in the July debates (the second night).
That could change in the October debate. Since the Democratic candidates last met in September, House Democrats have began an impeachment inquiry, a judge ordered Trump to provide eight years of his tax returns, and his personal lawyer Rudy Giuliani is under investigation after two Ukrainian associates were arrested on campaign finance charges. If the candidates have any choice words about the flurry of activity surrounding the president, we will hear them tonight.
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