‘Talk Is Meaningless’: Readers Tell Us What They Want From the Debates

We wanted to hear from voters on their expectations for the Democratic debates, so we asked readers to tell us how they would be judging the candidates’ performances and what issues they would most like to hear about. We received more than 500 responses. Many respondents self-identified as registered Democrats and said that although they voted for Hillary Clinton in the general election, they voted for Senator Bernie Sanders in the primary.

Most readers said they wanted to hear the 2020 presidential candidates discuss specific issues — not just their policy proposals on topics like climate change and health care, but also how, in detail, they would accomplish them.

“I want to hear detailed, substantive plans,” Laurie Rothermel, a reader from Orinda, Calif., wrote. “Talk is meaningless to me unless they are providing plans to back it up.”

But there were also those who cared most about something less tangible: beating President Trump. And some offered a blunt assessment of the field itself: It was too big.

Below is a selection of the responses, which have been edited and condensed.

[Sign up for our politics newsletter, and we’ll send you a reminder about our live chat on debate night.]

The overwhelming majority of respondents said climate change was the issue they cared about most.

“I want to hear real urgency and a realistic plan to reverse climate change,” wrote Linda Shepherd in Anchorage.

Roselyn O’Connell from Arizona said, “I’m looking for bold ideas about climate change that can really work.”

Readers were also passionate about health care, income inequality and immigration.

A good number of readers listed a candidate’s perceived ability to defeat Mr. Trump as the primary attribute they were looking to evaluate during the debates.

“Beating Trump is the only thing that is important to me this election,” Courtney D. from Orange County, Calif., wrote.

Many also shared a vision for restoring the country’s reputation on the world stage.

“Beating Trump will result in improvements on most issues and be a positive reflection to the world and our children that we are indeed a decent country,” said John Buckley in Pittsburgh.

[We tracked down the 2020 Democrats and asked them the same set of questions. Watch them answer.]

Some readers said they viewed the upcoming debates as an opportunity to assess where candidates stand on issues and whether they answer questions directly. Others saw them as a chance to take stock of the character of the candidates. Still others want to see how candidates might respond to direct attacks on stage, which could offer a glimpse into how they would interact with Mr. Trump should they become the nominee.

Sharon Hill from North Carolina wrote, “I want to see signs that a candidate will not be thrown off by the petty tactics that the current president will inevitably pile onto her/him.”

But there were also readers who said debates were essentially useless forums that rewarded peacocking and little else.

“I worry that the current system for debates is leaving out what could be viable candidates,” Margaret Rogers from Colorado said, before advocating for more town hall-style events “where I can get a more in-depth look at the candidates.”

Rob Cope from Philadelphia put it more succinctly: “I have never gleaned any information from a debate that affected my vote.”

Nearly every reader weighed in on the size of the Democratic presidential field, which includes more than the 20 candidates who will appear on the debate stage. Some viewed the large and diverse field as advantageous, offering them a wide range of candidates to consider.

“I’m in no rush to make up my mind,” Sko Hayes from Kansas wrote.

[Which Democrats are leading the 2020 presidential race this week?]

But others suggested lower-tier candidates should, in effect, “drop out gracefully” and questioned why more were not running for Senate.

“There are too many candidates and that makes for confusion,” said Connie Markey in Illinois.

“I would like all candidates to explain how their presence on the stage is justified more than at least 10 others that are there,” Frank Bellows from El Cerrito, Calif., wrote.


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