Who Will Be Spinning the Democratic Primary Debates On Cable TV News?

The U.S. presidential election season is about to kick into full swing with the first Democratic primary debates on Wednesday, June 26th, and Thursday, June 27th at 9pm ET on MSNBC, Telemundo, and NBC. Will you be watching? We sure will be, because we’re curious about who will be on the plethora of cable news panels that will be sure to forecast who will say what beforehand and break down every statement in detail afterwards.

Three of the record six women running will appear on each of the two nights. We expect that the individual women candidates will get speaking time equal to the men if the moderators do their jobs correctly.


On the moderator front, NBC features a diverse group at the behest of the Democratic National Committee, which is requiring at least one woman moderator at every debate. Savannah Guthrie, Lester Holt, Chuck Todd, Rachel Maddow, and José Diaz-Balart will be moderating the two nights of debates.

A diverse group of moderators is a good step, but who gets to spin the debates on television afterwards matters, too. Only an average of 8 million viewers watched each 2016 Democratic primary debate, and 15.5 million watched each Republican primary debate. If that trend holds in 2019, a ton of eligible voters will not even watch the debates at all, let alone all four hours of the first scheduled debates next week. What’s distilled for them by talking heads on TV  may be all they learn about the candidates.

In 2016, we conducted a thorough analysis of the pundit class during the presidential campaign, in partnership with the Center for American Women and Politics at Rutgers University and the Women’s Media Center. These were our topline findings after tracking popular shows on cable news networks CNN, FOX, and MSNBC for eight months:

  • Overall 28% of analysts were women vs. 72% men.

  • Shows only did a little better with regard to gender balance when the conversation was about “woman things”. Every show increased the appearances of women when gender was at the center of the conversation.

  • Even when the shows did have the opportunity to do better, they still failed to do so. The choice networks made at the beginning of the election season made their climb out of a failure to include women particularly tough. The paid “regulars” and the network-identified “analysts” dominated the conversations. So, the table was set (with a lot of men). However, when extra chairs were added — by choice — apparently little, if any, consideration was made to improve gender balance.

A lot has changed since 2016 in terms of attention to gender equality, but whether or not the news networks reflect that when they curate their post-debate panels remains to be seen.

We feel encouraged by the analysis of Sunday news shows conducted by our wonderful summer intern, Lauren, over the past month, which has shown good gender balance in terms of the number of women commentators on screen as well as how much talk time they have had on air.

Get your GA Tally ready and join us next week for all of the debates!

While we hope this trend continues in post-debate punditry, we’re going to continue to watch closely and keep reporting back. Watch with us, tag @GenderAvenger on Twitter and Facebook, and tell us what you’re seeing!